Porky from Little Rascals, Gordon Lee, Dies at 71

Gordon Lee, who played Porky in the 1930s “Little Rascals” shorts, died over the weekend of complications from brain and lung cancer. He was 71.

‘Little Rascals’ Actor Gordon Lee Dies (AP)

This photo provided by family friend Roger Gillette is a June 28, 2004 photo of Gordon Lee, who earned his fame as 'Porky' in more than three dozen 'Little Rascals' comedies. Lee died Sunday in a Minneapolis nursing home after battling lung and brain cancer, according to Janice McClain, his partner of 13 years. He was 71. (AP Photo/Roger Gillette)Gordon Lee, the chubby child actor who played Spanky McFarland’s little brother Porky in the “Little Rascals” comedies, has died. He was 71. Lee died Sunday in a Minneapolis nursing home after battling lung and brain cancer, said Janice McClain, his partner of 13 years.

Lee played one of the younger members in the “Our Gang” shorts in the 1930s, appearing in more than 40 of them from 1935 to 1939. The comedies, produced by Hal Roach, became known as “The Little Rascals” when shown on TV in the 1950s. Among the films Lee appeared in were “Bored of Education,” which won the Oscar for best one-reel short subject in 1937; “Our Gang Follies of 1936”; “The Awful Tooth”; and “Roamin’ Holiday.”

In a 1998 interview with the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Texas-born Lee said he was 2 years old when his mother sent his picture to studio executives who were seeking an actor to play McFarland’s brother. “We were on the next train to L.A. and I had a contract within a few days,” Lee said. “Fat kid got lucky.” “My memories are not about making movies. We played with our toys and the adults played with theirs (the cameras),” he said.

He and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas teamed up against older boys Spanky and Alfalfa in many of the comedies. The Porky character is credited with originating the catchphrase “otay.” In the interview, Lee recalled a warm friendship with his black costar when they were kids and praised their interracial relationship on screen, saying, “Buckwheat played an absolute equal part in the Gang.”

Lee told friends his career ended when a growth spurt made him thinner. “They wanted Porky to be a chunky fellow, so they looked for someone else,” McClain said.

The life of a child actor isn’t particularly glamorous and most of them grow out of their cuteness and desirability as actors. Only devoted fans would have known his real name, but “The Little Rascals” was certainly an iconic program and Lee played a part in it.

The complete listing of episodes featuring Lee is at IMDB. He has no other acting credits.

Some photos:

Photo: Gordon Lee as Porky in Little Rascals Our Gang Photo: Gordon Lee as Porky in Little Rascals Our Gang

Interestingly, one of the legends surround the cast was that an unusual number of the child actors went on to tragic ends. As Snopes notes, there is some truth to this:

Alfalfa — Carl Switzer was shot to death at age 31.
Chubby — 300-pound Norman Chaney died at age 22 following an operation.
Buckwheat — William Thomas died at age 49 of a heart attack.
Darla Hood — The Our Gang leading lady contracted hepatitis and died at age 47.
Brisbane — Kendall McCormas, known as Breezy Brisbane, committed suicide at age 64.
Froggy — William Robert Laughline was killed in a motor scooter accident at age 16.
Mickey Daniels — He died of liver disease at 55.
Stymie — Mathew Bear led a life of crime and drugs. He died of a stroke at age 56.
Scotty Beckett — He died at age 38 following a brutal beating.
Wheezer — Robert Hutchins was killed in an airplane accident at age 19.
Pete the Pup — He was poisoned by an unknown assailant.
and Spanky…….Robert Blake is accused of murdering his wife (recently acquitted)

However, selectively looking at only the supporting cases gives a misimpression.

If one were to choose any group of thirty or so people born in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s and follow them through the course of their lives, it wouldn’t be the least bit unusual to find that several of those people died well short of Our Gang their average life expectancies due to disease, accident, homicide, or suicide. People get sick, die in accidents, and kill each other (or themselves) all the time — these are the facts of life (no pun intended), sad as they are. Such deaths may be tragedies, but they’re hardly outside the pale of ordinary human experience.

[…]

  • 54% of the actors are still alive or lived to be at least 72 years old.
  • 75% of the actors reached the average life expectancy at birth for persons of their time.
  • 82% of the actors lived until at least their late 40s. (This may not sound like much by modern standards, but it’s a significant figure given that the average life expectancy at birth for most of the actors listed here was in the mid-50s range.)

Considering their generation went off to World War II, the number of tragic endings is not at all unusual.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. RA says:

    Great post but Spanky wasn’t Robert Blake. Blake was another child star that eludes me.

  2. Don Surber says:

    I interviewed Spanky McFarland in 1986. He lived in Texas and had retired. He died within a year.

    The only other famous person I ever interviewed was Billy Carter. He too died within a year.

    Hmm

  3. Greg says:

    Spanky McFarland died in 1993…. you sure you interviewed the right one?

  4. James Joyner says:

    Right: Blake played “Mickey”

  5. John Burgess says:

    I know I did meet George “Spanky” McFarland. He was an officer in one of the actors’ unions and my old man was also a union officer. Spanky came by our house a few times and it really rocked me as a 7-y/o to have him actually there.

    Got to meet Jackie Gleason, too, as his Ralph Cramden was a busdriver and my dad was too.

  6. Michael Langlois October 21, 2005 says:

    Is there any way to get uncensored Little Rascal films?