What’s in a Name? If It’s Spanky, a Lot
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ George McFarland, who played Spanky in the ″Our Gang″ movies, won a posthumous victory in a battle to protect the image he developed as a chubby child actor in a beanie.
McFarland sued Spanky McFarland’s Restaurant of Ocean Township, N.J., in 1990 for unauthorized use of his name and image. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1992, and McFarland died last year at age 64 while his appeal was pending.
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court reinstated the case.
″Spanky must be very happy up there,″ said the actor’s attorney, Marshall H. Tanick.
McFarland’s complaint received more sympathy this time: Judge William D. Hutchinson’s ruling for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was sprinkled with movie trivia and obvious admiration for the ″Our Gang″ shorts.
The name Spanky McFarland, Hutchinson wrote, ″has become so identified with McFarland that it could be considered his own name.″
McFarland joined the ″Our Gang″ crew in 1931 - shortly after his third birthday - and appeared in more than 90 films before quitting movies at age 16. The comedy series, later known as the ″Little Rascals,″ lasted from the 1920s to the ’40s, periodically replacing characters as the child performers grew too old.
The restaurant opened in 1989 with ″Our Gang″ decor and dishes such as Spanky’s Steak Sandwich, Buckweet’s Basket and Alfalfa’s Sprout Burger. The actors who played Buckwheat and Alfalfa both died years ago.
In his ruling, Hutchinson said McFarland ″actively protected the right to license his name″ - usually successfully - in at least four other actions.
Bernard M. Reilly, attorney for the restaurant, declined to comment on specifics of the case, saying he had not seen the ruling. He said the restaurant closed in September.
New Jersey law doesn’t prohibit unauthorized use after a public figure is dead. But Tanick plans to continue seeking damages on behalf of McFarland’s widow, Doris, for the years when he was alive.
″Look at Elvis. Look at Marilyn Monroe’s estate. It’s property,″ the lawyer said. ″We need to serve notice that people should be careful before trading on Spanky’s name.″