Baby LeRoy: Mischievous Mite of the Movies

The roll call of stage and screen personalities contains many child actors. A lucky and talented few of them managed to continue acting or performing throughout their entire lives. The vast majority parted ways with the business around the time of adolescence. A smaller number (e.g., many of the members of Our Gang) were put out to pasture when they approached the age of ten. Today we salute an individual who not only started out younger than most, but was effectively retired by age FIVE.

Baby LeRoy (Ronald Le Roy Overacker, 1932-2001) was the youngest person ever placed under a long term contract to a Hollywood studio (Paramount) — he was sixteen months old. LeRoy’s first film was A Bedtime Story (1933) in which he played a foundling who cramps the lifestyle of playboy Maurice Chevalier. LeRoy had been found at an orphanage by Chevalier and director Norman Taurog, who selected him for his charm. Next he appeared in Torch Singer (1933), a racy pre-code drama starring Claudette Colbert, playing the baby of Lyda Roberti’s character.

His third film is what elevated Baby LeRoy to a lasting place in the public’s memory, for it began his association with the comedian W.C. Fields. In Tillie and Gus (1933), Fields and Alison Skipworth play the shady uncle and aunt of a young woman (Jacqueline Wells a.k.a. Julie Bishop) who has inherited a ferry boat. As they help her sort her affairs they briefly care for and tangle with her tot King, played by LeRoy. These interactions were a minor part of Tillie and Gus; the film where Fields engages in epic tussles with the infant prodigy is The Old Fashioned Way (1934), where LeRoy is the baby of boarding house landlady Jan Duggan. This is the one where the LeRoy hits Fields on the head, throws mush in his face, and puts his pocket watch in a glass of water, provoking a surreptitious kick from the comedian later when no one is looking. The studio played up a supposed real-life animosity between Fields and the kid which became a permanent part of classic comedy lore. LeRoy’s third and final encounter with Fields was in It’s a Gift (1934), where LeRoy, as Baby Dunk, causes similar mischief in Field’s character’s general store. This one was directed by Norman McLeod, who had also directed Fields and Baby LeRoy in the all-star Alice in Wonderland (1933), although the pair didn’t appear in any scenes together in that one.

Thus it emerges that Baby LeRoy’s legendary status as a foil to W.C. Fields rests on a miniscule foundation: just a handful of scenes in three films. But LeRoy was majorly hyped by Paramount for a couple of years. Publicity photos with Fox star Shirley Temple from 1934, for example, indicate Paramount’s hopes for the toddler. But it probably doesn’t need to be pointed out that stars ike Shirley Temple are born, not made.

Baby LeRoy appeared in only a handful of other films. He is the title character in Miss Fane’s Baby is Stolen (1934); he’s in the original version of The Lemon Drop Kid (1934) with Lee Tracy; and he is reunited with Joe Morrison from The Old Fashioned Way for It’s a Great Life (1935). A comedy short called Babes in Hollywood (1935) with fellow child stars Billy Lee and Virginia Weidler was his last proper narrative film. Archival footage of LeRoy was used in the short Cinema Circus (1937).

In 1940, at the age of eight, LeRoy attempted a comeback in what was to be his first real starring film, the original version of The Biscuit Eater. But he proved to be troublesome. In a scene where he was supposed to swing across a stream on a rope, he fell into the water twice, spoiling the shot. Following which, he caught a cold and lost his voice. He was replaced in the role by Billy Lee, and the film was a hit without him. This was Baby LeRoy’s last work as a professional in show business. The Adult LeRoy later went to work as a merchant seaman.

For more on classsic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube