Hal Roach, the one-time mule skinner and gold prospector who later mined the careers of such comedic greats as Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Will Rogers and the “Our Gang” kids, died yesterday, two months shy of his 101st birthday.
Although details of his death were unclear at press time, his friend of more than 20 years and biographer Richard Bann said Roach died around 2 p.m. yesterday at his Bel-Air home. Roach’s health had been deteriorating for months and in recent weeks he began suffering from pneumonia.
President Ronald Reagan described his former colleague in this light: “At 100 years old, Hal Roach made us all feel young. He was one of the founding fathers of the motion picture industry … the original hyphenate producer, director, writer and studio boss. He will be deeply missed.”
Roach drifted into the business as a bit actor in 1912, following a hodgepodge of odd jobs, including dabbling in Alaska gold prospecting as well as running mule trains in the Pacific Northwest.
When he hit Hollywood at the age of 20, the fledgling movie business was just beginning to thrive. Universal hired him as a stunt man and extra at $ 5 a day.
When Roach inherited $ 3,000 in 1915, he started his own company with Lloyd, launching a comedy series called “Willie Work.” But it failed. Roach hunted work as a director and Lloyd began working for comedy giant Mack Sennett.
Pathe became a backer for Roach, who joined up with Dan Linthicum to start Rolin Film Co. and the partners re-hired Lloyd.
By the late ’20s Roach threw his energies into developing his biggest assets–Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase and the “Our Gang” comedies (last were retitled “Little Rascals” when they went into TV syndication). By the ’30s he moved into sound, introducing such shorts as the Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts comedy series.
Roach’s career faded after World War II, but he continued to appear at film festivals honoring his body of work. He received an honorary Academy Award in 1984.
Reflecting on Laurel & Hardy, who appeared in more than 100 films, including 27 features, Roach said: “People appreciate them more now because they haven’t got any competition. It seems to me that people have been laughing at things that aren’t funny because they’re dyin’ to laugh.”
As for “Our Gang,” Roach once said, “The best comedy comes from children. Laurel and Hardy acted like children. ‘Our Gang’ was children acting like adults.”
By 1935, Roach moved into movies with such films as “Captain Fury,””The Housekeeper’s Daughter,””Of Mice and Men,””Topper” and “One Million B.C.”
During WWII, his Culver City studio became Fort Roach producing training and propaganda films for the U.S. Army Air Corps. But his company never recovered in the post war era.
Under son Hal Roach Jr.’s direction, it made a few TV series: “My Little Margie””Duffy’s Tavern,””Life of Riley,””Blondie,” and “Amos ‘n Andy.”
Roach, who was the last founder and original board member of the Motion Picture & Television Fund, has also been a co-founder and president of another Hollywood pastime, the Santa Anita Race Track.
Roach is survived by his daughters, Maria Watkins, Jeanne Roach and Bridget Anderson. Three of his children are deceased.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Roach will be buried in Elmira, N.Y., where he was born Jan. 14, 1892.
He will be buried in the same cemetery as Mark Twain.