McFarland, George Robert Phillips [Spanky] (1928–1993)


By: Robert J. Duncan

Type: Biography

Published: August 29, 2021

Updated: August 29, 2021


George Robert Phillips McFarland, a popular child film actor known as Spanky McFarland, was born in Dallas to Robert Emmett McFarland and Virginia Winifred (Phillips) McFarland on October 2, 1928. The family gave the baby the nickname “Sonny.” As an infant McFarland modeled children’s clothing for a Dallas department store, and he was a model for the “Typical American Baby” photograph on a poster for Wonder Bread in Dallas. Soon thereafter he made a one-minute-long Wonder Bread film commercial advertisement, and his picture was put on some Dallas billboards. 

Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California, began making Our Gang kid comedy short films in 1922. The films were shown in movie theaters as “short-subject” added attractions along with regular-length feature films. At first Our Gang movies were silent films, but in 1929 some of the films in the series began being produced as “talkies”; within a couple of years, virtually all commercial films were being produced with soundtracks.

Dorothy L. Phillips Fry, McFarland’s aunt (Virginia’s sister), who lived in Fort Worth, was familiar with the Hal Roach Our Gang films. She mailed a photograph (or perhaps a copy of the bread commercial film) of young McFarland to Hal Roach with the idea that her nephew would be a good addition to the cast of the Our Gang series. From his modeling and advertising experience in front of a camera, the toddler was already a somewhat seasoned professional. Roach was favorably impressed and found McFarland to be photogenic. He urged McFarland’s parents to bring the boy to his studios for a screen test. The family traveled to California at its own expense (in the trough of the Great Depression).

The screen test went well, and soon Sonny McFarland was given another nickname: Spanky (because the boy “looked ‘spankable’”). McFarland later said that the name was conceived by his first director. Spanky’s first contract, a five-year deal, paid him a starting salary of $75 per week, a lucrative, even dreamlike, salary for even most grown men in the 1930s.

Spanky’s first film was Free Eats, number 112 in the Our Gang series. It was released in February 1932; McFarland was not yet three-and-a-half years old at that time. Almost immediately he became a star of the Our Gang short films, and he was featured in almost all of them until he finally retired from the series following the release of number 211, Unexpected Riches, in November 1942.  

Spanky learned from comedian Stan Laurel how to do double-takes and triple-takes. Oliver Hardy taught the boy mannerisms such as rolling his eyes, placing hands on hips, and presenting an exasperated facial expression. So Laurel and Hardy, who also filmed at Hal Roach Studios, were mentors and role models for McFarland, at least to some extent, and he was an apt student.

In the mid-1930s Hal Roach issued a press release saying that Oliver Hardy, Patsy Kelly, and Spanky McFarland would star in a proposed film series called The Hardy Family. The first film of the series was to be Their Night Out, directed by James W. Horne. The press release probably was simply a ploy used by Roach to gain an advantage over Stan Laurel in a contract dispute. Laurel signed a new contract with Roach on April 8, 1935, and The Hardy Family film series never materialized. 

Some of McFarland’s Our Gang costars included Carl (“Alfalfa”) Switzer, William (“Buckwheat”) Thomas, Darla Hood, Robert (“Mickey”) Blake, Kendall (“Breezy Brisbane”) McComas, Dorothy DeBorba, and Matthew (“Stymie”) Beard. Spanky’s younger brother, Thomas, appeared in some of the films, though often in group scenes and frequently without any lines. One of the McFarland parents was present on the set for virtually all the filming, as were the parents of other Our Gang stars. Emmett McFarland and Fred Switzer, father of Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, frequently disagreed and argued with each other over their respective son’s screen time, star status, and salary.

The young actors were schooled in the studio for about three hours each morning. They took an hour off for lunch, and then they spent about five hours rehearsing and filming each afternoon. That schedule was adhered to for five days each week.

In the twenty-two years that the Our Gang films were made, about 140,000 children were interviewed or auditioned. Of those, just 176 appeared in the films, and only 41 were put under contract. 

Itinerant Texas-based filmmaker Melton Barker claimed, in print, that he had “discovered” Spanky McFarland. In a 1972 newspaper interview, Barker said that McFarland “was a little kid I used for bread and ice cream commercials.” Barker also mentioned (correctly) in that interview that, as a toddler, McFarland was called “Sonny” by his family members. Spanky and Barker were photographed together in front of a Hal Roach truck, probably in Houston in 1933 (although the photo appeared in a 1935 Biloxi newspaper).  

In 1936 the Our Gang film Bored of Education (starring Spanky) won the Oscar in the Best Short Film category. In 1938 Hal Roach sold the Our Gang films, film rights, and talent contracts to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. (MGM). Spanky was set to retire at that point, but MGM decided to sign him to a new contract. McFarland’s salary for starring in the films topped out at $1,500 a week. McFarland appeared in 95 of the 221 Our Gang short films. When Hal Roach syndicated many of the early Our Gang films for television, the name of the series was changed from Our Gang to The Little Rascals because the rights to the Our Gang name previously had been sold to MGM. McFarland got no residuals for any of the films.

In addition to the Our Gang short films, Spanky frequently was loaned to other Hollywood studios. He appeared in fourteen feature-length films, most notably the 1936 film The Trail of the Lonesome Pine that starred Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray, and the 1944 film The Woman in the Window that starred Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, as well as films starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, and Dick Powell. McFarland starred in a feature-length Hal Roach film titled General Spanky that was released in 1936. 

After McFarland turned sixteen, he was not able to find roles in films—a fate often experienced by other former child stars. He retired at age sixteen in 1944. After World War II, he joined the United States Army Air Forces and was stationed in San Antonio, but he later received a hardship discharge. During the next dozen years or more he was employed in a series of diverse jobs. He worked in a soft drink plant, a hamburger stand, and a popsicle factory. He owned and operated a barbecue restaurant and a nightclub in Oklahoma City. McFarland hosted The Spanky Show, on KOTV in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from 1955 to 1960. The television station was a Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) affiliate. He worked as an oil promoter, as a statewide sales manager for a wine company, and for a Texas bootmaker. In 1966 he joined the Philco corporation (later Philco-Ford), where he worked for several years in their commercial contract division and sold televisions to hotels and motels. Later he was promoted to national sales training supervisor in their Philadelphia headquarters. He retired from Philco-Ford in 1975; that year he was named a district sales manager at Magic Chef, Inc., and by 1983 he worked in Dallas as operations manager for Southwest Associated Furniture Buyers, Inc.

As an adult, McFarland was often called simply “Spank” by family members and friends. He made personal appearances and had speaking engagements at colleges, universities, and nostalgia conventions from time to time; his presentations were called “A Little Bit of Yesterday.” Occasionally he made guest appearances on television shows. He enjoyed playing golf, and he raised money for the Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth and the Leukemia Society of America by appearing at celebrity golf tournaments; he even had one such tournament named for him, the Spanky McFarland Celebrity Golf Classic.

In 1984 Our Gang alumni Spanky McFarland and Jackie Cooper presented a special honorary Oscar to ninety-two-year-old Hal Roach at the televised Academy Awards ceremony. In his presentation remarks, Spanky told Roach, “The nicest thing that ever happened to me was when you gave me my first job 52 years ago.”

Spank once said about his film career, “I had a ball—made a lot of money. I was eight or nine before I realized that all kids weren’t in movies. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience.”

On April 2, 1993, McFarland was honored in a ceremony in which he added his handprints to those of other film celebrities on the Wall of Fame at the Loew’s Theatre on N. Wells Street in Chicago. His last appearance on television was on the Cheers sitcom in an episode titled “Woody Gets an Election” (episode 21 of season 11) broadcast in April 1993; it had been filmed in California in March.

On June 30, 1993, McFarland collapsed in his home in Keller, Tarrant County, Texas. Unconscious, he was transported to Baylor Medical Center in Grapevine. He died in the emergency room less than an hour after arriving at the hospital. He was sixty-four years old. The cause of death was a heart attack. A memorial service was held on July 3 at the First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth; McFarland’s body was cremated, and the eventual burial of his ashes in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin was planned.  

McFarland had lived in Keller since 1971. He was married twice: to Paula Jeanne Wilkinson in 1949 (that marriage ended in divorce) and to Doris McFarland from 1955 until his death in 1993. He had three children: Verne Emmet, Betsy, and George Gregory. 

In 1993 the McFarland family had been planning a big surprise for McFarland; he had been selected to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but he was not aware of the upcoming honor. His wife had planned to take him on a trip to California for the unveiling ceremony. Spanky’s star was unveiled posthumously on February 1, 1994. It is located at 7095 Hollywood Boulevard. McFarland’s star is on the north side of the street, between N. La Brea Avenue and El Cerrito Place and is near the stars of Irving Berlin and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. The only two stars of the Our Gang series (as of 2021) to be so honored were Jackie Cooper and Spanky McFarland. McFarland’s favorite charities were the Leukemia Society of America and Cook Children’s Medical Center. His final gift to mankind was deeply personal: he was an organ and tissue donor to more than a dozen recipients.

Biloxi Daily Herald, September 26, 1935. Gayla Brooks, “Cliffites in Hollywood,” Oak Cliff Advocate, April 24, 2013 (https://oakcliff.advocatemag.com/2013/04/cliffites-in-hollywood/), accessed December 24, 2020. Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1993. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 22, 1984; September 12, 1988; July 2, 1993. Caroline Frick, “Making Movies Here: The Legacy of Itinerant Filmmaker Melton Barker,” Communique, Issue 04, 2009 (http://media.virbcdn.com/files/0d/FileItem-30629-Communique.pdf), accessed December 21, 2020. The Guardian (London, England), July 8, 1993. Hollywood Walk of Fame: George Spanky McFarland (https://walkoffame.com/george-spanky-mcfarland/), accessed December 24, 2020. Internet Movie Database: George ‘Spanky’ McFarland (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0568757/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm), accessed December 17, 2020. Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann, The Little Rascals, The Life and Times of Our Gang (Three Rivers Press: New York, 1992). Betsy McFarland (Spanky’s daughter), Telephone Interview by Robert J. Duncan, January 5, 15, 2021. New York Times, July 1, 1993. Sacramento Bee, July 28, 1936. St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, May 20, 1936. Dwight Swanson, “`Wasn’t That a Funny Thing That We Did?’; Oral Histories of Itinerant Filmmaking,” The Moving Image, 10 (Spring 2010) (https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/21652), accessed December 29, 2020.  “30 Pounds of Precious: The ‘Okey-Dokey’ Kid,” Hometown by Handlebar (https://hometownbyhandlebar.com/?p=14707), accessed December 12, 2020. Kenneth L. Untiedt, ed., Legends and Life in Texas, PTFS No LXXII (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2017). Richard Lewis Ward, A History of the Hal Roach Studios (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).

Categories:
  • Performing Arts
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert J. Duncan, “McFarland, George Robert Phillips [Spanky],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/mcfarland-george-robert-phillips-spanky.

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August 29, 2021
August 29, 2021

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