Hal Roach, the writer, producer and director who was a leading pioneer in shaping American film comedy, died yesterday at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 100 years old and lived in Bel-Air, Calif.
He died of pneumonia, said a friend, Richard Bann.
Mr. Roach helped make stars of Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase. He introduced film audiences to the renowned team of Laurel and Hardy and created and shaped the inventive "Our Gang" comedies, the most popular juvenile series ever filmed.
The movie maker won three Academy Awards, including an honorary one in 1984 for career achievement, and was given a special tribute at this year's Oscar ceremony. The other two were for shorts, "The Music Box," a 1931 Laurel and Hardy comedy about lugging a piano up a staircase, and "Bored of Education," 15 minutes of 1936 mischief and mayhem by the "Our Gang" chums.
As chief of Hal Roach Studios for nearly 40 years, Mr. Roach was the executive producer of nearly 1,000 movies. He occasionally directed, and he took part in the scripting and gag-writing for many films. His 18-acre comedy factory in Culver City, Calif., was a legendary prep school for performers, including Janet Gaynor, Jean Harlow and Mickey Rooney, and directors like Frank Capra, Leo McCarey and George Stevens.
Movies that Mr. Roach directed included "One Million B.C.," an innovative 1940 special-effects film. B. R. Crisler of The New York Times hailed it as "a masterpiece of imaginative fiction."
Mr. Roach co-wrote many of Harold Lloyd's thrilling stunt comedies, including the classic "Safety Last"; directed "Turnabout," a farce about a marital role-reversal, and produced two hit fantasies, "Topper" and "Topper Returns," as well as "Of Mice and Men," a poignant drama from the John Steinbeck novel. In the mid-1960's, he compiled and produced "The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy."
Mr. Roach's comedies stressed plot, structure and characterization along with visual gags, and their slapstick was more restrained than that produced by his main rival, Mack Sennett. As a result, Mr. Roach's standing with the increasingly sophisticated audiences of the 1920's and 30's waxed while Mr. Sennett's waned.
But by the late 1930's, double features were pushing one- and two-reel shorts off theater bills, so Mr. Roach and others began making longer comedies, which were less successful. Analyzing the problem, he concluded: "Laughter is a brief emotion. It is difficult to sustain comedy; it has to keep building and getting funnier."
Mr. Roach said his biggest mistake was in not following a hunch to create "streamlined 45-minute comedy features," noting that in the early 1940's he made four such films that earned him $1.8 million.
After World War II, Hal Roach Studios produced such long-running television series as "My Little Margie," "Public Defender," "The Life of Riley" and "The Amos and Andy Show."
In 1955, he sold the studios to his son, Hal Roach Jr. In 1959, the son was ousted in a power struggle and, soon after, his successors filed for bankruptcy protection. In 1963, the studios were demolished and the landmark training ground for some of America's best-loved comedians became an auto showroom. Since then, the assets -- and even the name -- of the company have been the property of other corporations.
Harold Eugene Roach was born on Jan. 14, 1892, in Elmira, N.Y., of Irish descent. His father, Charles, was an insurance and real-estate broker, and his mother, the former Mabel Bally, operated the boarding house where they lived. The boy's irrepressible penchant for pranks led to his dismissal from both a Roman Catholic and a public school. When he was 16, his father instructed him to grow up by traveling.
The youth drifted west to Seattle, where his odd jobs included selling ice cream from a horse-drawn wagon. He next went to Alaska, where he was variously a rural pack-team postman and a failed gold prospector. Then he went to California, where he supervised 20 mule-skinners in the construction of an oil pipeline in the Mojave Desert. Cowboy Extra
In 1912, four years after leaving Elmira, Mr. Roach started in movies as a $5-a-day cowboy extra. He rose quickly, working variously as a minor actor, cameraman, writer and assistant director, and he became a director and producer within two years. Over the next decade, he co-wrote, produced and often directed Harold Lloyd in two popular series of comedy shorts, gradually transforming the comedian from a Charlie Chaplin imitator into a distinctive star.
Mr. Roach originated the "Our Gang" comedies in 1922 after sighting a group of frisky youngsters playing and quarreling in a lumber yard. Their spontaneous antics intrigued him as heady relief from the rouged mini- adults that stage mothers constantly shepherded into his office.
He insisted that all "Our Gang" shooting be scheduled in accord with the youngsters' lives, schooling and recreation. The father of one boy refused to put any of his son's pay into a trust for him, and Mr. Roach sued the father to protect the boy. As the performers matured, they were replaced, one at a time, every three to four years.
Mr. Roach produced "Our Gang" for 16 years and then sold the series to MGM, which made episodes for six more years. In subsequent decades, as "The Little Rascals," they have been one of the most popular of children's television shows. Later stars who appeared in them included Jackie Cooper, Dickie Moore and Nanette Fabray.
Through the 1920's, Mr. Roach, diversifying, began to produce some dramas, westerns and other action movies. In the early 1930's, he introduced comedy shorts like "All-Star Comedies," the "Hal Roach Musicals" and a popular series with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts.
The film maker was an energetic man and flashy dresser who had a stocky frame and merry eyes. For many years, he owned six planes, a boat and a score of prized polo ponies. His team won the United States Western Polo Championship four times. He was a founder and former president of the Los Angeles Turf Club and an avid hunter and fisherman. In World War II, he produced propaganda and training films for the Army and Air Force, rising to the rank of colonel.
Mr. Roach is survived by three daughters, Maria Watkins, Jeanne Roach and Bridget Anderson, by his second wife, the former Lucille Prin. Besides his son, who died in 1972, he also had a daughter, Margaret, an actress, who died in 1963. Their mother was the former Margaret Nichols, also an actress.