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A director and film producer who was at the forefront of early Hollywood, Hal Roach became one of the most powerful filmmakers of the silent era before making the successful transition to sound features and later television. He was also responsible for launching several prominent careers, most notably Harold Lloyd and the comic duo Laurel and Hardy, while also introducing the world to "Our Gang," later known as "The Little Rascals." Under the auspices of his Hal Roach Studios, Roach competed with fellow producer Mack Sennett with comedy shorts that focused on narrative and characterization as opposed to Sennett's reliance on stereotypes and crude slapstick. With the success of Lloyd's "Lonesome Luke" series, Roach made the successful transition to features with some of the comic's most acclaimed films, including "A Sailor-Made Man" (1921), "Grandma's Boy" (1922) and "Safety Last" (1923). Meanwhile, Roach paired comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together, creating one of the most famous comedy duos in Hollywood history and churning out some 100 films with the pair like "Sons of the Desert" (1933), "Babes in Toyland" (1934) and "Way Out West" (1937). In the late 1930s, Roach made the surprising turn from comedy to drama, most notably releasing "Of Mice and Men" (1939), which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Following service in World War II, he again adapted to the times and entered the nascent television business, only to hand the reigns of his studio to son Hal Roach, Jr. But the boy made bad business decisions that nearly cost Roach his entire fortune and eventually put the studio on the chopping block. Nonetheless, Roach remained one of the most influential producers who played a significant part in shaping modern Hollywood.
Born on Jan. 14, 1892 in Elmira, NY, Roach was a rather poor student and left his hometown at 17, while working as a blacksmith's assistant. He went on to a number of adventurous odd jobs like driving a truck in Seattle, and working as a mule skinner and gold prospector in Alaska. He landed in Hollywood in 1912, where he worked at Universal Studios as a stuntman and an extra for $5 a day. It was at Universal that he met up-and-coming comic performer, Harold Lloyd, with whom he formed the Rolin Company in 1914. With backing from distributor Pathé Pictures, Roach commenced production on a series of comic shorts starring Lloyd as Willie Work, a pale imitation of Charlie Chaplin's more popular Little Champ character. Quickly ditching Willie, Roach and Lloyd developed the more unique Lonesome Luke, who was featured in a number of shorts including "Lonesome Luke, Social Gangster" (1915), "Luke, the Gladiator" (1916) and "Lonesome Luke's Wild Women" (1917). Many of the Lonesome Luke shorts were directed and produced by Roach, and were successful despite continued calls from critics that Lloyd was still nothing more than an impersonator.
In 1918, Roach and Lloyd abandoned Lonesome Luke in favor of Lloyd's famed Glasses Character, or The Boy, which became one of the most famous comic creations of the silent era. With the profits he made from the Lonesome Luke series, Roach - unable to overcome zoning laws to expand his old studio - built Hal Roach Studios in Culver City in 1919, where he continued to turn out successful comedies, distinguishing himself from his main competitor, Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios, by making a product that emphasized character and narrative structure over crude sight gags. In 1921, Roach inaugurated the "Our Gang" series of comedy shorts that featured the adventures of a group of poor neighborhood kids, which remained popular over the next two decades and lived on in syndicated television as "The Little Rascals" decades later. While Lloyd remained his main breadwinner, Roach also had the likes of Harry Langdon, Will Rogers, Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly in his stable. Meanwhile, Roach had Lloyd make the transition to features, which included notable productions like "A Sailor-Made Man" (1921), "Grandma's Boy" (1922) and "Safety Last" (1923), which famously saw Lloyd dangling ten-stories up from the hands of a broken clock.
In 1923, Lloyd left Roach's studio to branch out on his own, leaving the producer without his top moneymaker. But Roach made what could have been the best decision of his life when he paired wiry Brit Stan Laurel with overweight American Oliver Hardy to form Laurel and Hardy, one of the most popular and successful comic pairs in cinema history. Following their first film "Putting Pants on Philip" (1927), the pair went on to appear in over 100 films for Roach, including "From Soup to Nuts" (1928), "Sons of the Desert" (1933), "The Music Box" (1932), "Babes in Toyland" (1934) and "Way Out West" (1937). The pair split from Roach in 1940 in search of greater artistic freedom, once again leaving the producer without his highest-grossing talent. Meanwhile, in 1927, Roach ended his relationship with Pathé and began distributing his pictures through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which proved advantageous, since MGM began taking away exhibiters from his old distributor. The result was the diminished power of Sennett, who remained with Pathé and saw the number of his films being shown diminish. A year after making the switch to MGM, Roach equipped his studio for making sound pictures and began releasing talkie shorts in 1929. He graduated to features two years later and all but phased out shorts - save for "Our Gang" - by 1936. Two years after that, he sold Spankie, Alfalfa and the rest of "Our Gang" to MGM.
Turning away from comedy, Roach began producing glossy dramas and delivered his most serious effort in the genre with an acclaimed adaptation of "Of Mice and Men" (1939), starring Burgess Meredith, Betty Field and Lon Chaney, Jr. Hailed by critics, the film earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. By this time, Roach had a very different stable of actors, including Mickey Rooney, Charlie Chase and ZaSu Pitts, as well as directors George Stevens, Norman Z. McLeod and Leo McCarey. Although Roach became increasingly involved with the administration of his organization, he continued to enjoy occasional stints as a director, while also partnering with his son, Hal Roach Jr., in the 1930s. After his wife, Marguerite, died in 1941, Roach was called into active service in the military and helped by making featurettes, training films and propaganda pieces for the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army, which included actors Ronald Reagan, Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable. Following the war, he was one of the first Hollywood producers to make all his films in color, but saw his studio hitting hard financial times, which necessitated a move to television in the late 1940s.
Formed in 1948, the Hal Roach Television Corporation, enjoyed intermittent success with "The Stu Erwin Show" (ABC, 1950-55), "Racket Squad" (syndicated/CBS, 1950-53), "The Public Defender" (CBS, 1954-55) and "Steve Donovan, Western Marshal" (syndicated, 1955-56), among others. But in the late 1950s, Roach decided to sell his interests to his son and left production altogether. His son, however, failed to maintain the business properly and lost much of his father's fortune, leading to the studios shutting down for good in 1961. Throughout the years, he worked occasionally as a consultant on various projects while largely remaining semi-retired. In 1964, his daughter Margaret Roach died, while son Hal, Jr. passed in 1972, leaving Roach to outlive both his children and his first wife by decades. In 1984, he received an Honorary Oscar from the Academy, and the following year Roach appeared as one of the interviewees in the documentary, "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey" (1985). Living to the age of 100, Roach finally passed on Nov. 2, 1992 from pneumonia, just shy of his 101st birthday.
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