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Film Pioneer Hal Roach, Comedy King, Dies at 100 : Hollywood: Producer paired Laurel and Hardy, created 'Our Gang' series and was a key figure in TV.

November 03, 1992|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Movie producer Hal Roach, who teamed Laurel with Hardy and turned a talented yet unaffected group of child actors into "Our Gang" during a career that spanned silent one-reelers and television situation comedies, died Monday at his Bel-Air home.

His 100th birthday in January, celebrated at the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills, produced what proved a final outpouring of sentiment and public attention to the film industry's oldest pioneer.

He had been in relatively good health despite his age, said Richard Bann, his biographer. He developed pneumonia about a week ago, Bann added.

A self-made man who worked his way up from a $5-a-day cowboy extra to millionaire head of his own studio, Roach was renowned as the producer of some of Hollywood's finest short comedies.

At various times during the 1920s, the comedy roster at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City included Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Snub Pollard, Zasu Pitts, Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly and Irvin S. Cobb.

But it was Roach's creation of Our Gang and the teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that gave the small, independent studio its biggest successes and created an enduring comedy legacy.

Those creative strokes also earned Roach two Academy Awards for best short subjects: Laurel and Hardy's "The Music Box" in 1932 and Our Gang's "Bored of Education" in 1936.

Once described by a former employee as being "one of the most rugged individuals in the business," Roach was robust and vigorous. Even into his late 90s he continued to swim twice a day in the pool at his home, and meet with his cronies for lunch and cards at the Bel-Air Country Club.

"Through most of his 90s, he drove a car, he smoked, he drank, he dated, he went hunting. He did everything that any man can do--and with a vengeance," said long-time friend Bann, co-author of "The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang."

Old age did not really began to slow him until he turned 100 this year, Bann said. "It was as if he had achieved his goal of getting to be 100 and now there wasn't anything left."

He was the last surviving founder of the Motion Picture Relief Fund. His 100th birthday was celebrated fittingly at the fund's home and with a parade in Culver City.

One of his last public appearances was last summer in Las Vegas at a convention of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society. Roach headed straight for the roulette table after checking into his room.

Roach's vigor and forward-looking nature were constants of his life and career.

Born in Elmira, N.Y., Roach left home at 17 and spent three years on the road. An athletic young man with a barrel chest and a broad Irish face, he worked variously as a mule skinner and prospector in Alaska and as a truck driver in Seattle.

It was while working for a construction outfit in the Mojave Desert in 1912 that the 20-year-old Roach paid a fateful visit to Los Angeles.

He discovered that movie extras worked only from 8 to 4--when the sun was shining--and received car fare and lunch. They also earned $5 a day, which, Roach later recalled, "was a whole lot of money in those days."

An expert horseman, Roach became a cowboy extra for Universal, one of the many fledgling companies springing up around Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, at that time so rural that a sign on the back of a streetcar warned passengers, "Don't shoot rabbits from the rear platform."

Roach's lack of experience did not prevent him from rising quickly through the ranks to assistant director and director. Indeed, in that primitive era of hand-cranked movie cameras and open-air sets, Roach once said, "Nobody knew much about what they were doing."

In 1914, using an inheritance of several hundred dollars, Roach formed the Rolin Film Co., which rented studio space in the old Bradbury mansion on Bunker Hill.

His first picture, a one-reel Western, featured his actor-friend Harold Lloyd, who became Roach's first star. Beginning with the "Lonesome Luke" comedy series, and later donning horn-rimmed glasses, Lloyd went on to become one of the top comedians of the silent era.

From simple one-reel comedies, many of which Roach wrote on the way to locations in and around Los Angeles, he progressed to producing two-reelers with stronger story lines and character development.

In 1919, Roach and company moved to new quarters on Washington Boulevard in Culver City. A publicist later dubbed the 14-acre studio "the Lot of Fun."

The idea for the perennially popular Our Gang series was born by accident. It is a story that Roach seemed never tired of telling, as he did for a group of high school students in 1981:

One day in 1922, Roach recalled, he was enduring an audition of a heavily made-up young daughter of a "friend of a friend."

"She did her dance, she spoke her piece and sang her song," he said. "All I could think of was a trained animal. So I gave her the regular answer: 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' "

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