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Obituaries

Eugene Jackson, 84; Child Actor Starred in 'Our Gang'

October 28, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He broke into show business doing the shimmy at the Rosebud Theater on Central Avenue. The prize was a bag of groceries.

After he did it three weeks in a row, his mother took him to Hollywood, where he looked so startled when he was shoved into a pond on camera that he got $7.50 instead of the promised $5.

He also got introduced to Hal Roach, who took one look at his childish Afro frizz and dubbed him "Pineapple." Roach signed him to a two-year contract. Only 6, the boy was on his way.

Eugene "Pineapple" Jackson, veteran of half a dozen of the silent "Our Gang" comedies of the 1920s and a song and dance man who appeared in dozens of films and ground-breaking African American television series, including "Julia" and "Sanford and Son," died Friday at 84.

He had a heart attack at his home in Compton, said Robert B. Satterfield, head of a local fan club that tracks stars of Hal Roach Studios and a friend of Jackson's for the last 21 years. The actor's last public appearance was Oct. 6, Satterfield said, at Burbank's Pickwick Center, where he joined other surviving "Our Gang" cast members to accept an award from the fan club.

After Jackson's 1923 film debut as the extra who got dunked in May McAvoy's "Her Reputation," the little boy gained quick fame as Farina's older brother "Pineapple" in six of Roach's "Our Gang" silent two-reelers--"The Mysterious Mystery," "The Big Town," "Circus Fever," "Dog Days," "The Love Bug" and "Shootin' Injuns."

The classic shorts are better known to many as "The Little Rascals," a name they were given in the 1950s when they were recycled for television.

When his "Our Gang" contract ended in 1926, Jackson went to work for Mack Sennett as the only black child in the similar Buster Brown comedies, and he was also in Mary Pickford's silent feature film "Little Annie Rooney."

Charismatic, but later modestly attributing his popularity to "taking good directions," Jackson was so busy as a child actor that he worked in two studios a day, shuttling between them by limousine. He was in "Penrod and Sam" with then-child actor Ben Alexander, "Thief of Baghdad" with Douglas Fairbanks and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with Gertrude Howard.

Talkies didn't stop him either. His first one was the 1928 "Hearts in Dixie" for Fox, billed as "the first all-singing, all-dancing, all-Negro musical."

Jackson experienced early Hollywood's stereotype casting and pay differentials for minorities firsthand. For "Our Gang," he earned a top of $55 a week compared with the white children's $75, he told The Times in 1992. And, he added, "black kids had to look the part. They would put stuff on my hair to make it look kinkier."

When he hit the awkward age--too old for child roles and too young to portray adults--he went on the vaudeville circuit singing and dancing, billed as "Hollywood's most famous colored kid star." On tour, he found few hotels to accommodate him, and often roomed with a black family.

Over the years, Jackson was cast in bit parts selling watermelon, shining shoes, lugging suitcases, waiting tables or cleaning up after horses, and often went uncredited.

"Today, some activists call us 'Uncle Toms,' " Jackson said a few years ago. "This is unfair, because at the time it was work for us. Even as a child, I was able to provide for my family with film work."

Jackson's roles on television were also small, but he was nevertheless proud to be in series that broke ground for blacks. He was Diahann Carroll's Uncle Lou on the 1960s "Julia," which starred a black woman in a prestigious leading role--as a young professional and widowed mother--for the first time. He was Redd Foxx's friend on occasional episodes of the high-profile 1970s comedy "Sanford and Son" and played the faithful driver for an American veterinarian on the African veldt in the adventure series "Daktari."

The actor, who published his autobiography, "Eugene Pineapple Jackson: His Own Story," in 1998, perhaps found his greatest success in music and dance.

He was always in demand for roles in musicals, including Westerns with the singing cowboy Gene Autry, and he appeared on stages and before cameras with such entertainers as Judy Garland, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Al Jolson and Gene Kelly.

In his later years, Jackson taught dance at studios he established in Compton and Pasadena, training several of the performers in the 1959 film "Porgy and Bess." His work was featured in a dance retrospective prepared for the 1993 Los Angeles Festival, an offshoot of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.

In addition to pairing with his brother, Freddy, on the vaudeville circuit, Jackson toured for years as head of the Jackson Trio of jazz--Jackson on saxophone, his brother on drums and Virgil Johnson on piano.

Jackson, who served in the Army during World War II, always made time for family and the Compton home with the large rose trellis-filled yard he bought in 1956. He delighted in teaching his students and other young African Americans that, just like him, "If you know you can do something, you can do it."

The durable entertainer is survived by his wife of 55 years, Sue; two daughters, Hazel Clark and Sue Black, who have taught at his dance studios; and a son, Eugene III, who became a television cameraman. Services are being planned by the Simon & McGee Mortuary in Lynwood for Oct. 31..

Jackson was never bothered by the discrimination he surmounted in his career, or troubled that his name was less ingrained in Hollywood lore than the "Our Gang" comedies and other films in which he appeared.

"It's been a good life," he told The Times in 1992. "I didn't make the big money, but I'm better off today than some of those who did."

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