The longevity honors among major Hollywood figures are still held by Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount, who was in his 103rd year when he died in 1976. A friend remembers meeting Zukor and a companion at lunch at the Hillcrest Country Club. "You know my kid," Zukor said by way of introducing his companion." His son was 75. A possibly apocryphal line attributed to Zukor had him say, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."
Zukor is now being pushed in the longevity stakes by the equally legendary producer Hal Roach, who made Harold Lloyd's first comedies, joined Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to create film's greatest and most enduring comedy team, and invented the "Our Gang" comedies. Roach will be 100 years old on Tuesday, having been born in Elmira, N.Y., on Jan. 14, 1892.
After the declaration of Hal Roach Day and a parade in his honor on Saturday through Culver City, where he built his studio in 1920, Roach is being honored today with a big whoop-de-do at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, with a number of contemporary comedians in attendance. Roach is the last surviving founder of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, through which the industry takes remarkable care of its members, from carpenters to stars.
Roach still sees--everything--without glasses, goes to the races at Santa Anita (of which he was the founding president), plays ruthless bridge and gin rummy at the Bel-Air Country Club and conducts a lively social life, although he no longer shoots skeet and pheasants as he did until fairly recently. His hearing has dimmed somewhat, but his memory is full and sharp--and he has a lot to remember.
His father sold jewelry and his mother ran a boardinghouse in Elmira. The family took a summer cottage on Keuka Lake at Hammondsport, N.Y., Roach remembers, and the boarders came along. He had one brother and, he says, "I never had a bed of my own."
When he was 16 he passed himself off as 20 and got a three-month temporary job weighing mail for a post office survey. At the end of it he had $90, and his father urged him to visit an aunt in Seattle. "The idea," Roach says, "was that after the visit I'd come back and get a job on the Lehigh Valley Railroad and work my way up to engineer." As events proved, he had left Elmira for good.
In Seattle he heard about construction jobs in Alaska and sailed north to get one. Aboard ship he learned that the specific job he was aiming for was not so hot; you had to buy your own foul-weather gear. He and two new pals heard about other jobs that paid $200. "So the three of us sneaked off the boat in Valdez at night."
The jobs turned out to be 130 miles inland from the port and no way to get there but walk. "The first day I was really bummed out; the third day I thought I was going to die and I hoped I would." But he caught a second wind and ran the last five miles to get to the construction site in time for the 6 o'clock meal.
He intended to earn enough to buy his return ticket to Seattle and then split, having seen enough of Alaska. But he stayed on, driving teams of horses along the road under construction from Valdez to Fairbanks. He also paid for a certain Upstate naivete. A boss conned him into taking out the garbage nightly on grounds that it would lure the bears and that Roach would get to keep the second bear they shot. A cynical pal told him, "He's been gettin' somebody to put out the garbage for five years and there hasn't a bear showed up yet."
It was quite an adventure for Roach, who was still a teen-ager but who befriended what he calls "the naughty girls" who worked the construction camps and were stranded. He was fired from his last job, he says, after a misunderstanding. He was lying in his bed with a cigarette, incinerating the endemic lice one by one, but he looked to be goofing off.
Roach went back to Seattle and got a job making deliveries for an ice cream company and then as a demonstrator for White trucks. That led to a job overseeing a fleet of trucks that were supposed to haul construction supplies in the Mojave Desert. But it was terrain that only horses could negotiate, so Roach was back in the horse-minding business and finally a superintendent of freighting.
He was still only 20 and doing construction work on a pipeline when he saw an ad for extras with Western clothing to appear at the Hollywood Post Office at 7 on a given morning in 1912. "A dollar carfare and lunch," Roach recalls. "Well, I really wasn't at all interested in the carfare or their lunch, but I was interested to see how they made pictures. Now I was born in Elmira, which had nothing to do with the West, but I was on horseback in my job in the desert and so I had a Stetson hat and a bandanna handkerchief and cowboy boots."