Matthew “Stymie” Beard of Our Gang/ Little Rascals fame was born on the first day of 1925.
Born in Los Angeles into a religious family (his father was a preacher) Beard was already amassing walk-on credits in films by age two: you can see the toddler Stymie in such films as My Best Girl (1927) with Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers; the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the all-black musical Hearts in Dixie (1929) with Stepin Fetchit, Clarence Muse and Pineapple Jackson; the first screen version of Show Boat (1929); King Vidor’s seminal Hallelujah! (1929); and the long lost African colonial epic Mamba (1930).
In 1930, when Beard was five, Hal Roach cast him as the replacement for Farina who had begun to age out of his role. Beard’s sister Betty Jane had already been in two Our Gang shorts by that point (Moan and Groan Inc. and When the Wind Blows), which is clearly how the family knew about the opening when the call went out. He was given the nickname Stymie by Our Gang director Robert McGowan, who said he always stymied when he was trying to locate the child for a scene — he was always wandering off.
And this became the basis of the whole character. Stymie was always kind of sly and tricky and elusive. To this day, he remains one of the most popular of the kids from the series, and I think it is largely because he is one of the most memorable. The production team clearly gave the character a good deal of thought; much more than they gave the average cast member. My theory is that it’s because he was replacing the extremely popular Farina, who was one of the keystones of the series. The new character had to be just as good. The “look” of Stymie is CLASSIC. Kind of urban and sophisticated. In contrast with the baby-ish Farina, they made Stymie look like a little man, and very show bizzy: kind of black vaudeville/ Harlem nightclub: bald-headed with a derby and a vest…it’s very reminiscent of, say, Buck and Bubbles. The kid has everything but a cigar, and you kind of wish he played piano like Fats Waller. The derby, by the way, is said to have been a gift of fellow Roach star Stan Laurel, although that legend has the whiff of the publicity department about it.
This isn’t to say that Stymie is strictly someone else’s creation. The kid had a lot of charm and talent. I’m an enormous fan (as I’m sure a lot of people are) of his patented open mouthed double take — when he jerked his head in surprise, the derby would shift a little across that bald head. And his delivery was one of the indelible aspects of a line his character uttered that has always stuck with me: “Mighta chocked Artie, but it sure ain’t gonna choke Stymie!” (uttered when he tried an artichoke for the first time and munched the whole leaves rather than just the tips and the heart.)
Beard had a large family, and the Our Gang series employed many of them in the films at various times: the aforementioned Betty Jane, and also his sister Carlena, his brother Bobbie (a.k.a. “Cotton”), his brother Eugene, and even his mother, Johnnie Mae.
After five years with the franchise, it was Stymie’s turn to be cycled out, to be replaced with Buckwheat, who was more of a return to the Farina idea. Unlike most of the kids in the series, Stymie had quite a flourishing career for another dozen years. He was a bit and ensemble player, but he worked often. You can see him in films like Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor; The Littlest Rebel (1935) with Shirley Temple; Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn; John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936); the 1937 version of Penrod and Sam; Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis; Kentucky (1939); Swanee River (1939); The Return of Frank James (1940); Belle Starr (1941); Stormy Weather (1943); The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944) and many others.
Sadly, as an adult he developed a drug problem, spent time in jail, and did not clean himself up until he was in his 40s.
But then he came back with a vengeance! He worked steadily again as a bit player during the last decade of his life. Among his tv credits were three episodes of Sanford and Son, five episodes of Good Times, two episodes of Maude, as well as the Jeffersons, Diff’rent Strokes, Starsky and Hutch, and much else. He was also in several movies, including Huckleberry Finn (1975) and The Buddy Holly Story (1979).
Sadly, he was only 56 when he died in 1981. He suffered a stroke, fell down a flight of stairs and injured his head, then died of pneumonia a few days later.