Switzer was born in Paris, Illinois, the second son and last of the four children of George Frederick Switzer and his wife Gladys C. Shanks, both of German ancestry. He was named Carl after a member of the Switzer family and Dean after many relatives on his grandmother’s side. He and his brother, Harold, became famous in their hometown for their musical talent and performances. Both sang and could play a number of instruments. In 1934, the Switzers traveled to California to visit family members. While sightseeing, they went to Hal Roach Studios. Following a public tour, 8-year-old Harold and 6-year-old Carl entered the Hal Roach Studio’s open-to-the-public cafeteria, the Our Gang Café, and began an impromptu performance. Producer Hal Roach was present and was impressed. He signed both brothers to appear in Our Gang. Harold was given two nicknames, “Slim” and “Deadpan,” while Carl was dubbed “Alfalfa.”
The brothers first appeared in the 1935 Our Gang short Beginner’s Luck. By the end of the year, Alfalfa was one of the main characters, while Harold had relegated to the role of a background player. Although Carl was an experienced singer and musician, his character Alfalfa was often called upon to sing off-key renditions of popular songs, most often those of Bing Crosby. Alfalfa also sported cowlicks. By the end of 1937, Alfalfa had supplanted George “Spanky” McFarland, the series’ nominal star, in popularity. While the boys got along, their fathers argued constantly over their sons’ screen time and salaries. Switzer’s best friend among the Our Gang actors was Tommy Bond, who played his on-screen nemesis “Butch”. In Bond’s words, he and Switzer became good friends because “neither of us could replace the other since we played opposites.” However, Switzer was known for being abrasive and difficult on the set. He would often play cruel jokes on the other actors and hold up filming with his antics. In 1938 the production rights for Our Gang were sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the first two years’ of the MGM-produced series entries focused heavily on Alfalfa and his family.
Switzer’s tenure on Our Gang ended in 1940, when he was twelve. His first role after leaving the series was as co-star in the 1941 comedy Reg’lar Fellers. The next year, he had a supporting role in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Switzer continued to appear in films in various supporting roles, including in Johnny Doughboy (1942), Going My Way (1944), and The Great Mike (1944). Switzer had an uncredited role as Auggie in the 1943 film The Human Comedy. Switzer’s last starring roles were in a brief series of imitation-Bowery Boys movies. He reprised his “Alfalfa” character, complete with comically sour vocals, in PRC’s Gas House Kids comedies in 1946 and 1947. By this time Switzer was downplaying his earlier Our Gang work. In his 1946 resume, he referred to the films generically as “M-G-M short product.”
Switzer had small parts in both the 1946 Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life as Mary Hatch’s (Donna Reed) date at a high school dance in the film’s beginning and again in the 1948 film On Our Merry Way as the mayor’s son, a trumpet player in a fixed musical talent contest. In the 1954 musical film White Christmas, his photo was used to depict an Army buddy (named “Freckle-Faced Haynes”) of lead characters Wallace and Davis (played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye), and also the brother of the female leads the Haynes Sisters (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen).
In the 1950s, Switzer turned to television. Between 1952 and 1955, he made six appearances on The Roy Rogers Show. He also guest-starred in an episode of the American science fiction anthology series Science Fiction Theatre, and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In 1953 and 1954, Switzer co-starred in three William A. Wellman-directed films: Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, both starring John Wayne, and Track of the Cat starring Robert Mitchum. In 1956, he co-starred in The Bowery Boys film Dig That Uranium, followed by a bit part as a Hebrew slave in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Switzer’s final film role was in the film drama The Defiant Ones. Besides acting, Switzer bred and trained hunting dogs and guided hunting expeditions. Among his notable clients were Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (Switzer’s son’s godparents), James Stewart and Henry Fonda.
In early 1954, Switzer went on a blind date with Diantha (Dian) Collingwood, heiress of grain elevator empire Collingwood Grain. Collingwood had moved with her mother and sister to California in 1953 because her sister wanted to become an actress. Switzer and Collingwood got along well and married in Las Vegas three months later. In 1956, with his money running out and Diantha pregnant, his mother-in-law offered them a farm near Pretty Prairie, Kansas, west of Wichita. A son, Justin Lance Collingwood Switzer (now Eldridge), was born to them that year. However, they divorced in 1957. In January 1958, Switzer was getting into his car in front of a bar in Studio City, when a bullet smashed through the window and struck him in the upper right arm. The gunman was never caught. That December, Switzer was arrested in Sequoia National Forest for cutting down 15 pine trees. He was sentenced to a year’s probation and ordered to pay a $225 fine.
Switzer had agreed to train a hunting dog for Moses Samuel Stiltz. The dog was lost, having run after a bear, and Switzer offered a $50 reward for its return. A few days later, a man found the dog and brought it to the Studio City bar where Switzer then worked. Switzer paid the man $35 and bought him $15 worth of drinks. Several days later, Switzer and his friend Jack Piott, a 37-year-old unit still photographer, decided that Moses Stiltz should repay Switzer the reward money for the dog. Shortly before 7:00 that evening, January 21, 1959, Switzer and Piott went to Rita Corrigan’s home in Mission Hills, where Stiltz was staying, to collect the money they felt he owed Switzer.
Stiltz later testified before the coroner’s jury that Switzer had banged on the front door, saying, “Let me in, or I’ll kick in the door.” Once inside, he and Stiltz began to argue. Switzer said, “I want that 50 bucks you owe me now, and I mean now.” When Stiltz refused to give it to him, the men began to fight. Switzer allegedly struck Stiltz with a glass-domed clock, which caused him to bleed from his left eye. Stiltz retreated to his bedroom and returned with a .38-caliber revolver. Switzer grabbed the gun, resulting in a shot being fired that struck the ceiling. Switzer forced Stiltz into a closet, although Stiltz had regained his revolver. Switzer allegedly pulled a switchblade knife and screamed, “I’m going to kill you!” Fearing Switzer was about to attack, Stiltz shot him in the groin. Switzer suffered massive internal bleeding and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
- August, 07, 1927
- Paris, Illinois
- January, 21, 1959
- Mission Hills, California
Cause of Death
- Gunshot wound
- Hollywood Forever Cemetery
- Hollywood, California