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Obituaries

Gordon Lee, 71; Porky of 'Our Gang' Fame

October 23, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Gordon Lee, who played Porky, Spanky McFarland's chubby-cheeked younger brother in the "Our Gang" comedy shorts in the 1930s, has died. He was 71.

Lee, a retired history teacher, died Oct. 16 in a Minneapolis nursing home after battling lung and brain cancer, said Janice McClain, his partner of 13 years.

From "Little Sinner" in 1935 to "Auto Antics" in 1939, Lee appeared in 42 "Our Gang" comedies, as the shorts were known before they began airing on television in the 1950s as "The Little Rascals."

The Texas-born Lee was not quite 2 years old when his mother sent his picture to the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, where Roach was searching for a young actor to play Spanky's little brother. Roach liked what he saw.

"We were on the next train to L.A., and I had a contract within a few days," Lee said in a 1998 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, then added softly, "Fat kid got lucky."

Among the "Our Gang" films Lee appeared in were "The Awful Truth," "Roamin' Holiday," "Our Gang Follies of 1936" and "Bored of Education," the 1937 Oscar winner for best short subject.

As Porky, Lee was often paired with Billie Thomas, who played Buckwheat.

"He and Buckwheat were sort of a team, which is how most people, I think, remember Porky," said film historian Leonard Maltin, co-author of the 1977 book "Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals." "They were endearing and funny in a completely natural, spontaneous way. It never seemed rehearsed or contrived. That was the charm of it."

Richard Bann, Maltin's co-author, said the younger Porky and Buckwheat were teamed up when Spanky and Alfalfa were a team.

"They sort of represented the audience because they knew more than the older kids did and were sort of winking at us," Bann said.

In "Two Too Young," one of Porky and Buckwheat's earliest pairings, Spanky and Alfalfa swipe the younger boys' firecrackers. But after Alfalfa tells Spanky he can be trusted to safeguard the fireworks, Porky has the last laugh: He uses a magnifying glass and the sun to set off the firecrackers stuffed in Alfalfa's back pocket.

Lee recalled having a warm childhood friendship with his frequent screen sidekick Thomas, who died of a heart attack in 1980 at age 49.

"I'm sorry I didn't get to meet him as an adult," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Lee, the adopted son of a Fort Worth embalmer and his stenographer wife, said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star Telegram last July that he didn't feel as though he was "making movies" at the time.

"The big car would come and pick me up, and I would go to the movie lot and play with the same kids every day," he said. "We were just playing and having fun on the greatest playground in the world."

Lee, whose given name was Eugene, took the name Gordon in tribute to Gordon Douglas, the "Our Gang" director who greatly influenced him.

But Lee's time in Hollywood was short.

He found himself out of his by-then $300-a-week job after suddenly growing a few too many inches. He was 6 years old and only weeks from starting first grade.

Robert Blake, then known as Mickey Gubitosi, replaced Lee in the series.

Lee's family returned to Texas -- briefly to Fort Worth, where the Star-Telegram had once hailed the native son as the city's "Gift to Filmland," then to Lubbock, where Lee's father found a job and Lee learned to downplay his past as Porky. By high school, the onetime "Our Gang" member had gotten into many fights with "guys who gave me trouble about that."

After attending the University of Houston, Lee taught in the West Texas town of Post and later in alternative schools in Denver and Boulder, Colo. By the early 1970s, the 6-foot-4 former child actor had a four-inch beard and shoulder-length hair, and he kept his Hollywood past a secret from most of his friends.

"It was no big deal to me," Lee said in the interview in July. "It was just part of my life. I'm much more proud of what I did as an educator than of 'Our Gang.' "

Over the years, many people have claimed to be former "Our Gang" members, including an actor and television personality in the 1960s and '70s who claimed to have been Porky.

"But he did it at a time when the real Porky was not publicizing his past," said Bann, who later interviewed Lee for the revised edition of his "Our Gang" book. "No one knew where [Lee] was, and where he was [living], he wasn't talking about his past."

Lee, who did not start joining "Our Gang" reunions until about 1980, kept in touch with former "Our Gang" member Tommy "Butch" Bond, who died in September at 79.

"The last time I saw Gordon was at the Hollywood Collectors Show in Burbank," said Bann. "He and Tommy were both there together, and that's four months ago and now they're both gone."

In addition to McClain, Lee is survived by his son, Douglas.

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