During the 10 years that Jerry Schatz worked as a child actor in Hollywood, he was never asked to attend the Academy Awards. Still, there's always a chance that Schatz, who lives in Copiague, could pop up -- via film clips -- during tomorrow night's Oscar telecast (ABC/7, 8:30 p.m.).
Under his screen name, Jerry Tucker, he worked with some of the biggest names of Hollywood's golden age (Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Spencer Tracy and Laurel and Hardy, to name a few), and appeared in the Oscar-winning classics "San Francisco" (1936) and "Boys Town" (1938).
Baby boomers in New York, who rushed home from school to watch the "Little Rascals" on WPIX/11, may remember him from his appearances in 18 "Our Gang" comedies. With his impish looks, he was often typecast as the neighborhood brat who usually was the butt of pranks by Spanky, Alfalfa and the rest of the gang.
"Growing up, I thought everybody worked in the movies," says Schatz, who still exudes a boyish charm at 87. "I had no idea there was an outside world."
That's understandable, considering Schatz was only 5 when he got his first taste of performing in his hometown of Chicago. "My mother and father used to read poetry to each other, and I memorized it," he says. "My father was a great prizefight fan. One day, he took me with him. One of the fighters was late, so my dad put me in the ring as a joke and said, 'Jerry, recite "Gunga Din." ' So I did, and the head of Paramount Pictures just happened to be in the audience."
The studio boss was knocked out by the reading, and three weeks later, Jerry, his dad, Leonard, and his mom, Ruth, left for Hollywood. Paramount execs' first order of business was to change his German-Jewish name, which was considered too ethnic by Hollywood standards. They decided on the Mother Goose moniker Tommy Tucker. "My mother said, 'No, he's been Jerry since he was born and you're going to keep it Jerry. You can call him Jerry Tucker," Schatz recalls.
After making his film debut (on loan to MGM) in the 1931 Buster Keaton comedy "Sidewalks of New York," Jerry was borrowed by Hal Roach Studios for his first "Our Gang" comedy, "Shiver My Timbers." Roach used him again and again, including for Schatz's favorite -- the 1934 short "Hi, Neighbor," in which he played a rich snob who uses his fancy fire engine to win the affections of a pretty, young blonde.
"Whenever Hal Roach wanted a nasty kid, he would borrow me from Paramount," says Schatz, who -- like many actors of that era -- never had acting lessons. "I was very good in the 'Our Gang' comedies. . . . Once you did something well, the other studios remembered you."
And his family needed the money after his father died, within a year after the move to Hollywood. His mother, a music teacher, struggled to find paying students during the Great Depression. "When most people were making $6 a week," he says, "I know at some point I was making $50 a week." (Today, that would equal about $850.)
As Jerry Tucker, Schatz appeared in more than 60 films and shorts between 1931 and 1941, many of which, today, are regarded as screen classics. He was a choirboy in "San Francisco," had a scene with Gable and Lombard in "No Man of Her Own," played one of Mother Hubbard's offspring in "Babes in Toyland" (1934) and exchanged a few lines in a schoolroom scene with Shirley Temple in one of his favorite films, "Captain January" (1936). Schatz enjoyed playing with Temple off-screen, but those moments were infrequent. "Her mother did not want Shirley to associate with any other child actors," he remembers. "If Shirley and I would be playing, her mother would say, 'Go away.' "
But performing opposite box-office heavyweights like Temple never fazed him. "I never knew what a star was. To me, everybody I worked with was an actor. Almost all of them I liked, but it didn't mean a thing to me that they were stars," he says. "When I worked with Ginger Rogers in 'Sitting Pretty,' I thought she was a lovely girl. Bing Crosby used to throw a football with me. . . . To me, he was just a fellow I worked with."
While others might fuss over his screen credits, Schatz has always stayed grounded. "He is extremely modest about his movie career," says his friend Jack Roth, who lives in Yonkers and is president of the New York City chapter of the Sons of the Desert, the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society, where Schatz has been a guest. "He asked me once, 'You don't buy into all this Jerry Tucker stuff?' And I said, 'I've only known Jerry Schatz, I've never known Jerry Tucker.' "
By 1940, as he outgrew children's roles, Schatz turned to radio and found plenty of character parts, thanks to his distinctive, high-pitched voice. His show-biz career ended with World War II, when he joined the Navy in 1942 as part of the demolition team aboard the destroyer USS Sigsbee. "My mother thought I was going to make training films," he says.
Some of his movies were screened on ship, but no one recognized Schatz. In fact, he never told any of his crewmates he had been in movies.
"I never had what I would call a friend until I went in the Navy, and that's one of the reasons I never told anyone I had been in the movies," he says. "When you had a friend and told them, they would be more interested in your work than they were in you as an individual."
Even his late wife, Myra, whom he met at a USO center in San Francisco in 1944 and married three weeks later, didn't learn about his acting career until much later. "I went back to sea. My wife had never met my mother, so she came to New York to visit her. And it was my mother who told her I was in the movies. She said, 'Oh, for goodness sake.' "
Schatz returned to California in 1945, after suffering permanent injuries while on the Sigsbee. Kamikaze planes attacked his ship during the Battle of Okinawa, killing 23 sailors. Schatz caught shrapnel in his leg during the strike and was awarded the Purple Heart. He and his wife eventually came to New York so he could get medical treatment.
After the war, Schatz settled into a new career as an electrical engineer with RCA Global Communications. In 1950, he and Myra moved from Manhattan to Copiague, where he built the place he still calls home. "Across the street was a potato farm. The streets were mud," he recalls.
His days as Jerry Tucker were pretty much forgotten (he didn't tell his daughters, Karen and Renee, about his Hollywood past until they were teenagers). But in the 1970s, when he was asked to entertain at a reunion of his old shipmates, he and his wife put together a slideshow featuring scenes from his movies. It was a hit, with one exception. "One guy got up and said to me, 'We were together for four years, we were in the hospital and you never mentioned this.' He got up and walked out, and I never heard from him again," Schatz says.
He and his wife took their show to many venues. "He's a very warm, friendly guy," says his friend Dwain Smith of Franklin Square, who also invited Schatz to do his program at his church. "He loves to talk about his days with the Rascals, and the show was so well received. He also talks about some of the big stars he worked with, like Cary Grant."
Although Schatz never established close ties with people from his Hollywood days when he was younger, he did reconnect with a few later on, thanks to his friend Roth.
"One time I was going out to Long Island and called Jerry and said, 'Can you meet me on the boat? I have a good friend who's dying to meet you.' I didn't tell him it was 'Spanky' McFarland," of the Little Rascals, Roth says. Schatz and McFarland then became fishing buddies.
At various conventions, Schatz met former Rascal Jean Darling, whom he still hears from every Christmas, and Dorothy DeBorba, who died in 2010. He also appeared in interviews -- shot at his home -- for the 2008 "Little Rascals: Complete Collection" DVD set.
These days, Schatz no longer does the slideshow, and he is coping with the loss of Myra, who died in August. But fans haven't forgotten him. He still gets three to five letters a week, and many fans have given him DVDs of his films. "Once in a while, I watch them," he says, "but I was never really a movie fan."
While he appreciates the attention, he says his Hollywood days don't define who he is. "Jerry Tucker died at the age of 16, and Jerry Schatz was reborn in the Navy," he says. "It's not that being in the movies was anything that was bad. That's just not my life."