A few nights ago, Game Show Network ran a 1957 episode of To Tell the Truth in which one of the contestants was Jack Bothwell, a
New Jersey restaurant host who said that, in his younger days, he'd played Freckles in the famous "Our Gang" comedies produced by Hal Roach. As
per usual for the program, Bothwell and two imposters answered questions from the panel whose mission was to identify the real Jack Bothwell.
In this case, their problem was a little more difficult because — as the show's producers obviously were unaware — all three men
answering the questions were imposters. You see, there was no character named Freckles in the "Our Gang" films and Jack Bothwell never appeared
in any of them.
We are nearing the day when a great industry will draw to a close...people claiming falsely that they were kid actors in "Our
Gang." There have been a staggering number of them, some claiming to have played Spanky or Alfalfa or some other actual character; others
bragging of a non-existent role like Freckles. Not that long ago, the ABC news show, 20/20, did a whole profile of an older black man
who, they said, played Buckwheat. Some of these folks have published books or sold autographs. Others just seem to want the stardom.
There are other explanations for some of the fakes. There were several "Our Gang" imitations offered up by Roach's competitors
and in later years, some of the grown-up kid actors who'd been in those knock-offs either got confused or, more likely, decided there was more
prestige in saying they'd been in "Our Gang" than in, say, "The Kiddie Troupers." There were also kids who played bit parts or extra roles in
"Our Gang" who later decided they'd been regular featured players.
And there's one other interesting source of fake Our Gangers. At the peak of the series' popularity, there was a gent touring the
mid-west, working a "Harold Hill" style scam. He'd breeze into some small town and give an interview to the local paper as Robert MacGowan,
director of the famous "Our Gang" series. That was the name of the actual director but this wasn't him. The fake MacGowan would announce
that he was interested in getting some rural, small town values into the shorts and that he was scouting for kids who could act. Naturally,
hundreds of parents would drag their offspring down to meet him and he would suggest to each that Junior would be a natural; that he could go
directly to Hollywood and earn thousands a week if only he had a little more polish and seasoning. The phony director — and there may
have been more than one con artist working this line — would introduce an acting teacher (actually, his wife) who had just arrived to help his
talent search and who, for a nice fee, could make the child camera-ready. There were a number of variations on the scam, including some that
involved actually using locals to film what the bogus director said was a genuine "Our Gang" comedy. One can easily imagine a kid who was in
one of them later believing (or choosing to believe) he was actually in an "Our Gang" movie.
None of this, by the way, seems to explain Jack Bothwell. He appears to simply have been a fraud.
The other interesting thing about that spot on To Tell the Truth was that one of the fake Bothwells was a former police officer
who had recently joined the staff of another game show. His name was Barney Martin and he later became quite a successful actor. Oddly
enough, he got more answers correct than the "real" Jack Bothwell. Asked where in Hollywood the Hal Roach Studio was located, Martin said it
was in Culver City (correct) whereas Bothwell said he didn't know because his "Our Gang" movies had been shot on the East Coast. In truth, no
"Our Gang" films were made there.
Mr. Bothwell made the rounds of talk shows and did personal appearances before he passed away around 1967, complete with newspaper
obits about his career in "Our Gang." I don't know if anyone ever called him on his little fib but I do know he wasn't telling the truth on
To Tell the Truth.
Gosh. If you can't believe a 40+ year old game show, what can you believe?