Gordon Lee

'Porky' in the 1930s 'Our Gang' comedies
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The Independent Online

The former child actor Gordon Lee was known as "Porky" in the "Our Gang" film comedies - subsequently rechristened The Little Rascals for television - produced by Hal Roach from 1922 to 1938, and in the continuation of the series produced at MGM until 1944.

At any given time, the "Gang" would focus on a central core of somewhat older children, accompanied by younger members who would variously tag along or need to be looked after by their elder siblings. George "Spanky" McFarland first appeared among the infants in 1932 but by 1935 had grown into the age group whose lot in life was often to function as babysitter. The Roach studio thus sought a child who might plausibly be a younger brother to the chubby Spanky, a search that ended when Eugene Lee's mother sent in a photo of her 19-month-old boy. "Fat kid got lucky!" as he later recalled.

Eugene - as he was then known, although he was promptly nicknamed "Porky" - joined the series with Little Sinner (1935) and remained until 1939's Auto Antics. In all, he appeared in 42 of the films. Although by no means too old to continue, Lee had begun to grow much taller and slimmer, thus belying the "Porky" tag (his eventual adult height was 6ft 4in). During his time with the Gang, Lee was identified by the exclamation "O'tay" - or "OK", as rendered through the minor speech impediment that he came to outgrow - and as part of an unofficial double act with another of the tinier children, the black actor Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas.

Initially, Lee - as was common with the youngest newcomers - did not realise he was being filmed and simply played on-camera with the other children ("I had no idea," he recalled. "The big car would come and pick me up, and I would go to the movie lot . . . We were just playing and having fun on the greatest playground in the world") - something which added to the natural air of the films that so often distinguished them from their competitors.

When, in 1936, direction of the series was taken over by the 27-year-old Gordon Douglas - his first effort, Bored of Education, won the Gang's only Oscar - Lee's parents were so taken with him that they began to call Eugene "Gordon" in the director's honour. Lee retained the forename throughout his life and, in further tribute to his mentor, named his only son Douglas.

Eugene Lee was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and was adopted at an early age by an undertaker and his wife, a stenographer. Following his tenure with "Our Gang", Lee and his family returned to Texas, initially to their hometown of Fort Worth, then moving on to Lubbock. After high school, Lee tried his hand at several jobs before continuing his education, first at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, then at the University of Houston, studying political science, psychology and education. His career was spent teaching history, initially in Post, west Texas, then at Denver and Boulder in Colorado. His leisure activities centred around European sports cars, variously as restorer and trader.

Lee said he was much prouder of his achievements as a teacher than as a child actor. He had long preferred to distance himself from his film experience, not least because of the bullying it had attracted when he returned to an ordinary school. For many years, he did not take part in any reunions or celebrations and, during this absence from public view, became one of several Gang members whose identity was reportedly assumed by someone else. According to Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann's book Our Gang: the life and times of the Little Rascals (1977), a man claiming to have been Porky withdrew after his claims were challenged in the early 1970s.

In 1984, Lee is said to have received a sizeable private settlement over the unauthorised use of his character in a television cartoon series. Even after he had come forward, having been prompted to do so by a teaching colleague, Lee volunteered little about his personal life. Among the very few interviews he gave were those for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in April 1998 and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in July 2005.

Lee spent the last 12 years of his life in the Minneapolis area. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004 and, after seeming to have responded to treatment, was told that it had returned and spread to his brain. He died only a month after another former Gang member, Tommy "Butch" Bond, with whom he had maintained a long-term friendship. As the health of both men declined, they formed a kind of mutual support group, a touching footnote to their association in the Gang many years before.

Glenn Mitchell