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Legacy: Hal Roach

The producer leaves behind a long history of Hollywood successes, from Our Gang to ”Of Mice and Men”

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Legacy: Hal Roach

When Hal Roach received a tribute at the Oscars last March, two months after his 100th birthday, home viewers saw a scene that looked as if a doddering old man were giving a speech nobody could hear. But the image was far from the truth: Roach, who died of pneumonia on Nov. 2 in the Hollywood he helped build, was no mumbling movie grandpa. The man who teamed Laurel with Hardy, Spanky with Alfalfa, and Harold Lloyd with a pair of glasses was a pistol to the end. In interviews only last January, the slapstick-comedy pioneer was bubbling over with new ideas for films, TV series, even a game show.

Born in Elmira, N.Y., Roach spent his early years bumming around the still-wild West, prospecting for Alaskan gold, building a pipeline in the Mojave Desert. In Hollywood, a $5-a-day job as a cowboy extra sold him on the picture business. The burly Roach formed his own company in 1915 and quickly made a slapstick star out of Lloyd, who up to then had stuck to Charlie Chaplin imitations.

Throughout his career, Roach astutely stayed just ahead of comedy tastes. Watching a gang of kids play outside his window one day, he guessed that audiences were tiring of prissy movie brats and would pay to see Our Gang (a.k.a. the Little Rascals) instead. In 1927, he goaded ex-vaudevillian Stan Laurel into pairing with a former comic heavy named Oliver Hardy, producing over 90 shorts and features with them in the next 13 years. In the late ’30s and ’40s the producer forayed into chic fantasy (Topper), stark drama (Of Mice and Men), and even caveman cheesecake (One Million B.C.). In 1948 — 1948! — he converted the Hal Roach lot completely to TV production. In the early ’80s, still prodding the entertainment industry with idiosyncratic ideas, he promoted the colorization of movies on video, a process his company helped develop. And in the course of it all, Roach charged through the entertainment industry with a vitality that makes modern Hollywood look positively doddering.