After an adventurous youth that took him to Alaska, Hal Roach arrived in Hollywood in 1912 and began working as an extra in silent film. Upon coming into an inheritance, he began producing short comedies in 1915 with his friend Harold Lloyd, who portrayed a character known as "Lonesome Luke." In 1915 Roach married actress Marguerite Nichols. They had two children, Hal Jr. and Margaret.
Roach released his films through Pathé until 1927, when he went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He would change again in 1938 to United Artists. He converted his silent movie studio to sound in 1928 and began releasing talking shorts early in 1929. In the days before dubbing, foreign language versions of the Roach comedies were created by re-shooting each film in the Spanish, French, and sometimes Italian and German languages. Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang kids (some of whom had barely begun school) were required to recite the foreign dialogue phonetically, often working from blackboards hidden out of camera range.
In 1931, with the release of the Laurel & Hardy film Pardon Us, Roach began producing occasional full-length features alongside the short product. Short subjects became less profitable and were phased out by 1936. The Our Gang series continued until 1938, when Roach sold the contracts of the Our Gang cast members and the series name to MGM.
From 1937 to 1940 Roach concentrated on producing glossy features, abandoning low comedy almost completely. Most of his new films were either sophisticated farces (like Topper and The Housekeeper's Daughter) or rugged action fare (like Captain Fury and One Million B.C.). Roach's one venture into heavy drama was the acclaimed Of Mice and Men. The Laurel & Hardy comedies, once the Roach studio's biggest drawing cards, were now the studio's least important product and were phased out altogether in 1940.
In 1940 Roach experimented with medium-length featurettes, running 40 to 50 minutes each. He contended that these "streamliners," as he called them, would be useful in double-feature situations where the main attraction was a longer-length epic. Exhibitors agreed with him, and used Roach's mini-features to balance top-heavy double bills. United Artists continued to release Roach's streamliners through 1943. By this time Roach no longer had a resident company of comedy stars, and cast his films with familiar featured players (William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, Johnny Downs, Jean Porter, Frank Faylen, William Bendix, George E. Stone, etc.).
In 1941, his wife of 26 years, Marguerite, died.
In 1947, Hal Roach resumed production for theaters, with former Harold Lloyd co-star Bebe Daniels as an associate producer. Roach was the first Hollywood producer to go to an all-color production schedule, making four streamliners in Cinecolor, although the increased production costs did not result in increased revenue. In 1948, with his studio deeply in debt, Roach re-established his studio for television production, with Hal Roach, Jr. producing shows such as The Stu Erwin Show, The Gale Storm Show, and My Little Margie, and independent producers leasing the facilities for such programs as Amos 'n' Andy, The Life of Riley, and The Abbott and Costello Show. By 1951 the studio was producing 1,500 hours of television programs a year, nearly three times Hollywood's annual output of feature movies.
The visionary Roach also recognized the value of his film library. Beginning in 1943 he licensed revivals of his sound-era productions for theatrical and home-movie distribution. Roach's films were also early arrivals on television; the Laurel & Hardy comedies in particular were a smashing success in TV syndication.
For two more decades Roach Sr. occasionally worked as a consultant on projects related to his past work, and was planning a comeback comedy at age 96. Hal Roach was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982, where he recounted experiences with such stars as Stan Laurel and Jean Harlow; he even did a brief, energetic demonstration of a hula dance.
At age 92, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award. In the spring of 1992, not long after his 100th birthday, Roach once again appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony, hosted by Billy Crystal. When Mr. Roach rose from the audience to speak during the ceremony, the sound system did not pick up his words. Crystal quipped "I think that's fitting, after all — Mr. Roach started in silent film..."
Hal Roach was two months away from his one-hundred-and-first birthday, when he died on November 2, 1992, at his home in Bel Air, California from pneumonia. He was married twice, and had a number of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, where he had grown up.
Most of the film library was bought by a Canadian company that adopted the "Hal Roach Studios" name. It primarily handled the business of keeping the library in the public eye and licensing products based upon the classic film series.
In 1983 Hal Roach Studios was one of the first studios to venture into the controversial business of film colorization, creating digitally colored versions of several Laurel and Hardy features, the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life and other popular films. In the 1980s, Hal Roach Studios produced Kids Incorporated in association with old business partner MGM. From 1988 to 1990, while producing Kids Incorporated, Hal Roach Studios was known as Qintex.
In the years that followed, the Roach company changed hands several more times. Independent television producer Robert Halmi bought the company in the early 1990s, and it became RHI Entertainment. A short time later, this successor company was acquired by Hallmark Entertainment in 1994, but Halmi, Robert Halmi Jr. and affiliates of Kelso & Company reacquired the company in 2006. Hallmark Entertainment was absorbed into RHI Entertainment (with Lions Gate Home Entertainment as home video output partner).
In that same decade, a new incarnation of Hal Roach Studios (operated by the Roach Trust) was established, and today this new version of the company has released classic films on DVD, many of which are from Roach's own archival prints of his films, while others are public domain titles mastered from the best available 35 mm elements.