Classic Movie Travels: George “Spanky McFarland”
George “Spanky” McFarland portrayed the iconic leader of the Our Gang cast of children, beloved for his role as Spanky. He was born George Philips McFarland at Methodist Hospital on October 2, 1928, in Dallas, Texas, to Robert and Virginia McFarland. His father worked as a manager for a loan company and, later, automobile broker. He had three siblings: Tommy, Amanda, and Roderick or “Rod.”
Initially, McFarland was dubbed “Sonny” by his parents and modeled children’s clothes in department stores throughout the Dallas area. He could also be spotted in print ads and highway billboards to promote Wonder Bread. By 1930, McFarland was comfortable and recognizable before the camera.
In 1931, Hal Roach Studios printed a trade magazine ad calling for photograph submissions of “cute kids.” In response to the ad, McFarland’s aunt sent over various pictures from McFarland’s modeling days. As a result, he was invited to partake in a screen test, which opened the door to a career as an actor. In fact, parts of his initial screen test were worked into the Our Gang short “Spanky” (1932). In later interviews McFarland shared that the nickname was given to him by a reporter. Per his studio contract, McFarland was given permission to use the “Spanky” name in all subsequent business and personal activities.
McFarland became a core member of the Our Gang cast at age three. Though extremely young, he was adorable before cameras, laughing and babbling his way through his earliest scenes. His character grew more outspoken as the series continued, eventually making him the ringleader of the group. As a contract player at Hal Roach Studios, he mingled with many other studio stars, including the likes of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Laurel taught him how to perform double-takes and many of his mannerisms were further inspired by Hardy.
Though McFarland appeared in numerous shorts, his only starring film role was in General Spanky (1936), produced by Hal Roach. While the film attempted to transition the Our Gang series into feature films, it was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, McFarland appeared in many other films beyond Hal Roach Studios. His younger brother, Tommy, could also be spotted in some of the shorts.
In 1938, McFarland retired from Our Gang and participated in several personal appearances. The Our Gang unit was sold by Roach to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, rehiring McFarland to reprise his role. McFarland returned to Our Gang and carried out his Spanky character until his last appearance in the series in 1942, at fourteen years old. McFarland then attended Lancaster High School in Lancaster, Texas.
As McFarland entered into adulthood, he served in the United States Air Force. Upon his return, he found himself struggling to get roles in films because he was so closely associated with the Spanky character. As a result, he took on other careers, including working at a soft drink factory, popsicle factory, and hamburger stand. By the 1950s, the Our Gang shorts were syndicated on television and McFarland began hosting a children’s show called The Spanky Show, airing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The show aired Little Rascals shorts—as the Our Gang shorts were now named in syndication—but the station deterred McFarland from expanding his show, leading him to quit in 1960.
McFarland continued to take on a variety of odd jobs, including selling wine, appliances, electronics, and furniture. He also operated a restaurant and night club at one point. He had success selling products for the Philco-Ford Corporation, ultimate working his way up to national sales training director.
McFarland married twice—first to Paula Jeanne Wilkinson and next to Doris Taulman McFarland. He and Doris had three children: George Gregory McFarland, Verne Emmett McFarland, and Betsy McFarland.
All the while, he was still making personal and cameo appearances in films and on television—affectionately nicknamed “Spank,” by then—with his former Our Gang peers. In 1985, also went on to help launch The Nostalgia Channel, a Texas-based channel that screened classic films.
By the 1990s, McFarland was semi-retired. He participated in numerous fundraisers and golf tournaments, including the Annual Spanky McFarland Celebrity Golf Classic, which was held for 16 years in Marion, Indiana, throughout the 1970s and 1980s. McFarland’s final television appearance would be in a walk-on role for Cheers, as himself, in the “Woody Gets an Election” episode.
McFarland passed away from a heart attack on June 30, 1993. He was 64 years old. He was cremated soon after and plans were made to place a cenotaph in his honor at Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas. While these plans were approved, they have yet to be executed at the time of writing this article.
Today, few points of interest relating to McFarland remain. In 1928, McFarland and his family lived at 836 ½ N. Madison Ave., Dallas, Texas, which no longer stands. By 1930, his family boarded at 233 Jefferson Ave., Dallas, Texas, which has also been razed. In 1940, he and his family resided at 4626 Morse Ave., Sherman Oaks, California, which stands today.
McFarland also lived at 1711 Lakewood Blvd., Euless, Texas, which also stands.
Additionally, he lived at 8500 Buckner Ln., Ft. Worth, Texas. The home listing also noted that this was McFarland’s former estate. This home still stands, as well.
Today, McFarland and Jackie Cooper are the only Our Gang members with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. McFarland posthumously received his star in 1994, located at 7095 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.