Harold Eugene "Hal" Roach, Sr. (January 14, 1892 – November 2, 1992) was an American film and television producer and director, and actor from the 1910s to the 1990s.
Hal Roach was born in Elmira, New York. A presentation by the great American humorist Mark Twain impressed Roach as a young grade school student.
After an adventurous youth that took him to Alaska, Hal Roach arrived in Hollywood in 1912 and began working as an extra in silent film. Upon coming into an inheritance, he began producing short comedies in 1915 with his friend Harold Lloyd, who portrayed a character known as "Lonesome Luke." In 1915 Roach married actress Marguerite Nichols. They had two children, Hal, Jr. (1918–1972) and Margaret (1921–1964).
Watch Hal Roach's 1920 silent comedy, Get Out and Get Under, one of several of his films available free from the Internet Archive.
Success as a comedy producer
Unable to expand his studios in downtown Los Angeles because of zoning, Roach purchased what became the Hal Roach Studios from Harry Culver in Culver City, California. During the 1920s and 1930s, he employed Lloyd (his top money-maker until his departure in 1923), Will Rogers, Max Davidson, the Our Gang kids, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Patsy Kelly and, most famously, Laurel and Hardy. During the 1920s Roach's biggest rival was producer Mack Sennett. In 1925 Roach hired away Sennett's supervising director, F. Richard Jones.
Roach released his films through Pathé Exchange until 1927, when he went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He would change again in 1938 to United Artists. He converted his silent movie studio to sound in 1928 and began releasing talking shorts early in 1929. In the days before dubbing, foreign language versions of the Roach comedies were created by re-shooting each film in the Spanish, French, and sometimes Italian and German languages. Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang kids (some of whom had barely begun school) were required to recite the foreign dialogue phonetically, often working from blackboards hidden out of camera range.
In 1931, with the release of the Laurel & Hardy film Pardon Us, Roach began producing occasional full-length features alongside the short product. Short subjects became less profitable and were phased out by 1936. The Our Gang series continued until 1938, when Roach sold the contracts of the Our Gang cast members and the series name to MGM.
From 1937 to 1940, Roach concentrated on producing glossy features, abandoning low comedy almost completely. Most of his new films were either sophisticated farces (like Topper and The Housekeeper's Daughter) or rugged action fare (like Captain Fury and One Million B.C.). Roach's one venture into heavy drama was the acclaimed Of Mice and Men. The Laurel and Hardy comedies, once the Roach studio's biggest drawing cards, were now the studio's least important product and were phased out altogether in 1940.
In 1940, Roach experimented with medium-length featurettes, running 40 to 50 minutes each. He contended that these "streamliners", as he called them, would be useful in double-feature situations where the main attraction was a longer-length epic. Exhibitors agreed with him, and used Roach's mini-features to balance top-heavy double bills. United Artists continued to release Roach's streamliners through 1943. By this time Roach no longer had a resident company of comedy stars, and cast his films with familiar featured players (William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, Johnny Downs, Jean Porter, Frank Faylen, William Bendix, George E. Stone, etc.).
In 1941, his wife of 26 years, Marguerite, died.
World War II and television
Hal Roach, Sr. was called to active military duty in June 1942, at age 50, and the studio output he oversaw in uniform was converted from entertainment featurettes to military training films. The studios were leased to the U.S. Army Air Forces, and the First Motion Picture Unit made 400 training, morale and propaganda films at "Fort Roach." Members of the unit included Ronald W. Reagan and Alan Ladd.
In 1947, Hal Roach resumed production for theaters, with former Harold Lloyd co-star Bebe Daniels as an associate producer. Roach was the first Hollywood producer to go to an all-color production schedule, making four streamliners in Cinecolor, although the increased production costs did not result in increased revenue. In 1948, with his studio deeply in debt, Roach re-established his studio for television production, with Hal Roach, Jr., producing shows such as The Stu Erwin Show, Steve Donovan, Western Marshal, Racket Squad, The Public Defender, The Gale Storm Show, and My Little Margie, and independent producers leasing the facilities for such programs as Amos 'n' Andy, The Life of Riley, and The Abbott and Costello Show. By 1951, the studio was producing 1,500 hours of television programs a year, nearly three times Hollywood's annual output of feature movies.
The visionary Roach also recognized the value of his film library. Beginning in 1943 he licensed revivals of his sound-era productions for theatrical and home-movie distribution. Roach's films were also early arrivals on television; the Laurel & Hardy comedies in particular were a smashing success in television syndication.
In 1955, Roach sold his interests in the production company to his son, Hal Roach, Jr., and retired from active production. Unfortunately, the younger Roach lacked much of his father's business acumen, and soon lost the studio to creditors. It was finally shut down in 1961.
For two more decades Roach Sr. occasionally worked as a consultant on projects related to his past work. Extremely vigorous into an advanced age, Roach contemplated a comedy comeback at 96. He was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982, where he recounted experiences with such stars as Stan Laurel and Jean Harlow; he even did a brief, energetic demonstration of a hula dance.
In 1984, 92-year old Roach was presented with an honorary Academy Award. Former Our Gang members Jackie Cooper and George "Spanky" McFarland made the presentation to a flattered Roach, with McFarland thanking the producer for hiring him 52 years prior.
In the spring of 1992, not long after his 100th birthday, Roach once again appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Billy Crystal. When Mr. Roach rose from the audience to speak during the ceremony, the sound system did not pick up his words. Crystal quipped "I think that's fitting, after all — Mr. Roach started in silent film..." At the 42nd Berlin International Film Festival, Roach was given the honorary award of the Berlinale Camera.
Hal Roach died from pneumonia on November 2, 1992, two months short of his 101st birthday, at his home in Bel Air, California. He was married twice, and had a number of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Roach is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, where he grew up. Roach outlived many of the Our Gang children who starred in his pictures.
Hal Roach Studios
The 14.5 acre (58680 m²) studio once known as "The Lot of Fun," containing 55 buildings, was torn down in 1963 (despite tentative plans to reopen the facilities as "Landmark Studios") and replaced by light industrial buildings, businesses, and an automobile dealership. Today, Culver City's "Landmark Street" runs down what was the middle of the old studio lot, with the two original sound stages having been located on the north side of Landmark Street, and the backlot/city street sets had been located at the eastern end of Landmark Street. A plaque sits in a small park across from the studio's location, placed there by The Sons of the Desert.
Most of the film library was bought in 1971 by a Canadian company that adopted the "Hal Roach Studios" name. It primarily handled the business of keeping the library in the public eye and licensing products based upon the classic film series.
In 1983, Hal Roach Studios was one of the first studios to venture into the controversial business of film colorization, creating digitally colored versions of several Laurel and Hardy features, the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, Night of the Living Dead, and other popular films. In the 1980s, Hal Roach Studios produced Kids Incorporated in association with old business partner MGM. During the 1980s, Hal Roach Studios distributed its classic film library, as well as films in the public domain, on home video. From 1988 to 1990, while producing Kids Incorporated, Hal Roach Studios was known as Qintex.
In the years that followed, the Roach company changed hands several more times. Independent television producer Robert Halmi bought the company in the early 1990s, and it became RHI Entertainment. A short time later, this successor company was acquired by Hallmark Entertainment in 1994, but Halmi, Robert Halmi Jr. and affiliates of Kelso & Company reacquired the company in 2006. Hallmark Entertainment was absorbed into RHI Entertainment (with Vivendi as the current home video output partner).
In that same decade, a new incarnation of Hal Roach Studios (operated by the Roach Trust) was established, and today this new version of the company has released classic films on DVD, many of which are from Roach's own archival prints of his films, while others are public domain titles mastered from the best available 35 mm elements.