Spec O’Donnell and Maxine Tadacome, Exhibitors Herald, 1923.
Long a favorite of classic film fans for his infectious grin and mischievous onscreen personality, Walter Davis “Spec” O’Donnell gained fame for the explosion of freckles which covered his face. Making a career of portraying playful characters like country boys, shop attendants, worker bees, and the like, O’Donnell earned over 230 credits in film and TV starting in 1923 and ending in 1978 with “Convoy.” A happy-go-lucky kid made a living entertaining others and making people happy, something he enjoyed.
Born April 9, 1911 at White’s Bridge in Fresno County, California to Irish parents John William and Maude O’Donnell, Walter was the third of three children. The family moved to Madera, California and struggled, as the 1920 census shows that 54 year old O’Donnell did not work, while his 37 year-old wife supported the family as a laborer at a lumber mill. The couple separated not long after, and Maude continued working to support the family.
Hollywood at Play, by Donovan Brandt, Mary Mallory and Stephen X. Sylvester is now on sale.
Spec O’Donnell, Picture Play Magazine, 1927.
In 1921, young Walter applied to be mascot for the local baseball team, earning the position due to his great smile, singing and dancing skills, and sweet disposition per the Madera Mercury newspaper. He kept audiences entertained in the breaks between action and earned his nickname from the profusion of freckles covering his face. The December 2, 1922 Madera Tribune described this, saying “specks” in the form of freckles dot his landscape or countenance like cloves dot a Christmas ham… .”
Local businessmen Ben and C. F. Preciado saw promise in the boy, convincing his mother Maude O’Donnell to sign a management contract allowing them to pursue a screen acting career for young Spec. The newspaper printed parts of a telegram from Ben to C. F. on January 25,1923, stating “Spec’ is to be given a thorough trial by the Warner brothers…Assistant director Watts will keep “Spec” in his home to be educated by the Warner studio teacher.” They were assisted in getting him a test at Warner Bros. by Los Angeles policeman Jack Clark, brother-in-law of the Preciados and friend of Sam Warner.
Signed to a ten week contract, Spec appeared as a street urchin in the film “Main Street” starring Florence Vidor and Monte Blue. During filming, he was almost asphyxiated by gas from a heater one night at Watts’ house, who heard him coughing and came running. Over the next few months, young O’Donnell appeared in street kid roles in several Warners’ films before earning a large role in “The Country Kid” as a younger brother to befreckled Wesley Barry. Trade magazines praised O’Donnell and Bruce Guerin for their performances while noting that Barry was stuck in that in between phase moving from cute kid to young man. Motion Picture News reported in June that he had appeared in six Warners films. While he achieved success onscreen, his older brother Jack passed away from a brain aneurysm at age 15 in June 1923. After grieving his brother, Spec appeared late that fall in the 1923 Century release “The Darling of New York” with Baby Peggy, playing perhaps his first Jewish role onscreen. He also acted opposite the great Jewish comedian Max Davidson at the time, who he would go on to co-star onscreen opposite many times as his son.
From the beginning, the Madera newspapers followed his career with interest, noting any screen appearance or any possible role through the mid-1950s. O’Donnell made appearances in town after virtually every film, perhaps to visit his mother who still lived at 216 Vineyard Avenue and because he loved his home town. He would also appearance at fairs, schools, and theatres throughout the county.
Seeing his son’s success in the movies, John O’Donnell sued his wife Maude for custody of Spec in January 1924, asking that attorney Denver S. Church be named legal guardian. Spec told papers he hoped to stay with his mother as she had supported him and he had seen little of his father in years. The judge ruled in favor of Mrs. O’Donnell, noting that she had been supporting her children for some time with no help from Mr. O’Donnell. At the same time, the January 30, 1924 Variety reported that document had been discovered which stated that the two Preciado brothers would receive half of Spec’s salary for three years.
Spec O’Donnell, Motion Picture News.
Not long after the trial, Spec appeared in two of Walt Disney’s “Alice” shorts with Virginia Davis, shorts that combined live action with animation, and would appear in several more over the next few years. Century Comedies came calling and signed him to a contract to star opposite Buddy Messinger and twelve-year-old Martha Sleeper in a series of shorts, where he once again earned good reviews, with one calling him “Champion freckle-faced kid.” In the short “Delivering the Goods” with Pal the Dog, Spec received good notices as a clerk in his father’s grocery store, though Pal stole the show.
Spec’s fine acting in such features as “The Foolish Virgin” with Elaine Hammerstein, “The Devil’s Cargo” with Wallace Beery, and “The Dressmaker from Paris” with Leatrice Joy and Ernest Torrence drew the notice of people at the Mary Pickford Studios. Young Spec was signed to play young Jewish boy Abie in “Little Annie Rooney” opposite “Queen of the Movies” Pickford. Family Daily found his acting special, noting “the characterization that would do credit to a veteran actor.” Possibly this strong part would set the bar for his many future Jewish roles to come, including playing the part of Gustav von Seyffertitz’s son Ambrose in “Sparrows” with a fake nose. O’Donnell would joke in a trade column describing how he broke into movies that a casting director had laughed, “An Irish boy for a Jewish part! Now that’s a crazy idea!”
Though O’Donnell received fine notices for his acting skills in these films, they failed to move him into more prominent roles in features. Perhaps a little of Spec’s mischievousness went a long way to ensuring his popularity, where longer parts might have worn out his welcome.
Spec O’Donnell, right, on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
While Spec continued to appear in features, he soon found greater fame starring in two-reel comedy shorts, both for the independent market and for Hal Roach. He appeared in a series of shorts for Ray McCarey in 1928, including the two-reeler “Ready, Set, Go,” which filmed in his home town of Madera, about a farm boy going to college and accomplishing things through no help of his own. Some reviews still called him a child actor, though by this point he was 17 years old.
Spec soon found his perfect onscreen partner while pairing with Max Davidson in a series of shorts for Roach, many often directed by Ray McCarey’s brother Leo. Davidson and Spec exhibited a perfect chemistry together, sparking great charisma and believability as often bickering or challenging father and son, especially in shorts like “Don’t Tell Everything” (1927), “Pass the Gravy” (1928), and “Call of the Cuckoo” (1927). They would appear on film together 16 times.
Jumping back and forth from features and shorts, Spec successfully made the transition to sound, still continuing to play sometimes obnoxious office boys, elevator operators, messengers, and office clerks in films like “Show Girl in Hollywood” (1930), “The Grand Parade” (1930), “Broadway Bill” (1934), “the Good Fairy” (1935), and “Cain and Mabel” (1936), usually uncredited.
Like many other silent stars, Spec appeared in numerous television shows in the 1950s-1960s, like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Bonanza.” As late as 1978, he even earned a line in the film “Convoy” as 18 Wheel Eddie. Soon after, Spec moved into the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, where he passed away October 14, 1986. He is buried in Madera, California, his long ago home town.
Though often relegated to small or tiny roles in films, Spec’s goofy grin, happy-go-lucky demeanor, and sometimes cocky attitude attracted audience’s attention, then and now. For even just a few seconds, audience members smile in appreciation for someone who always seemed to be having a ball.