It’s the first month of the last year of the 1950’s in Hollywood, and things are at an all time high. World War 2 ended good for us; the post-war economic boom is great; and the entertainment industry is rolling in profits like never before! From factory workers, to business tycoons, to movie stars — Los Angeles is “THE” place to make dreams come true in this era. Unfortunately for one poor soul — his dreams came to a horrible end.
In January 1959, he was found dead, covered in his own blood, inside the house of a welder in the Valley. A shocking end to a guy who was to become one of the most iconic characters in Hollywood history. He was forever loved, forever entertaining, and forever young. Even in 2019 the mere mention of his name or his look — gives a chuckle.
And so goes the often-startling disconnect between the actors we see on screen, versus their real lives. That’s not news to anyone following the realities of Hollywood — but it does remind you how hard it is to reconcile the truth with the image. Even for a cold, jaded person who has been around the block his whole life. Often the truth is stranger than fiction.
Let’s rewind all the way, way back to the birth of Hollywood to the early silent era as they transformed into “talkies”. This actor came out of nowhere, almost as a fluke, and was “discovered” in a cafeteria singing and dancing with his own brother. We will call the actor “CARL” (for obvious reasons as you’ll see).
Behind the scenes, his overbearing father had forced the kids to put on the show. The same show they’d rehearsed umpteen times. His dad was a forceful “dad-ager” who constantly pushed his kid harder; and negotiated his son right out of a job years later.
Carl the kid was offered a contract in the cafeteria, by the studio owner and founder who was creating a new series of short film comedies. The studio boss knew the kid would be a smash. He was right. That series had already been in production for years, but was faltering. So the big boss decided to hire new talent and re-vamp the franchise. Reboots are nothing new; and this reboot cemented the production’s success and that of this young star.
From 1922–1944 (in both silent then with sound) over 220 episodes were made, including modern feature films in our own past three decades. The series franchise has never been off the screen or off the air — in some form, since 1922.
There were more than 40 actors as the main stars of the ensemble, with another 100 or more in various supporting roles. These have included some actors who later became legendary stars (or even some who became “infamous” in their personal lives). Although some tabloid TV shows would have you think a “curse” afflicted the actors in later life, that never was true. Many lived full lives. The lead stars of the group did die way too young, but not out of the norm from people of their era. In fact, compared to the fates of many actors — they nearly had gilded lives.
There was often drama behind the scenes, mostly due to bickering parents and stage momagers/dadagers. But this group was largely protected by a guardian angel of sorts who made sure nobody messed with them. It wasn’t morality, but money. These actors/actresses were a cash cow for their studios. The creator and founder of their home studio made sure nobody messed with them.
When he sold the production to a bigger studio; several “connected” people who owned part of that studio went to great lengths to spread the word: “You mess with them? We mess with YOU!”. Nobody dared cross them in those days, and the actors were protected (despite what many in the same studio often did to adult women).
Carl, (the young actor who won his contract in his cafeteria performance) “stood above” all the rest. He was one of the big five stars — and one the most legendary in their projects’ memory. You would certainly call him A-List in his time; and could say his iconic name and image carry on as nearly A++list even today. He was an internationally-recognized star. An actor that is even today an icon, generations later — even by others who’ve never seen his acting. They still recognize his image and his name.
But for even those who know of his tragic fate, few know the truth behind his demise. Even those who were involved in the public aspect of the case didn’t realize they were being played by others producing and directing Carl’s downfall. The truth was hidden for years, and had to be brought to light. For that, we pay a visit to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Inside the halls of the LAPD there is a very special team of detectives who handle the most important, high-profile cases. This is the LAPD Robbery Homicide Division (RHD); and is the most elite squad of detectives, possibly in the entire country. Their “Open-Unsolved Case” Unit is legendary for the cold cases they clear, technology used, and the cases themselves (The Black Dahlia and William Desmond Taylor are among them).
The RHD team has been the subject of tons of movie and television features. Loads of books, fact and fiction, have used them or their fictitious avatars as subjects. From HEAT to Mulholland Falls to shows like The Closer, Law & Order LA, The Protector, and CBS’ Robbery Homicide.
But their real-life detectives are far more interesting than anything on screen. One of these was a legendary law man named John St. John (aka Jigsaw John) who worked from the Black Dahlia case all the way until his retirement and almost immediate death in 1993.
I had the pleasure of knowing Jigsaw John and he was an amazing source of gossip, info, and history that can never be replaced. He worked 50 years on the most famous cases in LAPD, and his badge number was Badge Number 1 in the LAPD.
One of John’s protégés through the years also became a close pal of mine. He spent a great deal of his efforts in their cold case unit. He also became one of the early supporters of the department utilizing technology to create databases on old cases, cold cases, and cross-searching past clues and methods to open windows for current cases. With much thanks to this guy, the LAPD’s databases are unmatched even by the FBI when it comes to digging through past case files.
But, even with their computerized record systems, they still keep a manual type-printed record of every case to come down the pipe in the so-called “Murder Journal”. It has cases stretching back to 1899 and the first recorded homicide in Los Angeles police history. It is continually updated and serves as a reference for all LAPD RHD detectives in ongoing (and past) cases.
Every murder has a full file known as the “journal” for that specific case. My close friend has had an illustrious career with the LAPD RHD, including the cold case or Open-Unsolved Unit. As a top cold case detective (or “Cold Dick” as he’s known), his job has included doing the things that a zillion TV shows, books, and podcasts by amateur sleuths have only dreamed. In short? He’s had the keys to the kingdom in every detail of every murder case in L.A. for over 100 years. Movie stars, singers, regular folks, politicians…and plenty of mob-related murders.
Detective Cold Dick (or Dick) tipped me off to the details of this particularly famous, tragic killing — and the details which did not add up. Why? Because back in the 1980s I had occasion to meet, and discuss things with, several co-stars and associates of the famous target of this tragic death. So it was that Dick and I compared notes, and worked a very cold case together to try and uncover the truth of the murder of a beloved actor.
Aside from the historic record within the sweeping “journal” that covers all old cases, there is also the “murder book”. This is essentially the case file found in any murder investigation in any police force. All the details are there, which sometimes leads to old cases being solved when new eyes/brains get a crack at it — even decades later. All the answers to any homicide are usually found within the murder book. It’s all there — you just have to look for it hard enough to uncover what you cannot see so obviously.
Carl, our long-time star, had gone the way of many child actors — and many within his gang of associates. Once they grew up, they couldn’t shake their past image on screen nor off. Carl had better luck than most, and had a small career in bit parts and supporting casts. Sadly, his jackass father absconded with most of Carl’s earnings — what little there was.
In his attempts to be a big-shot, Carl’s dad had gotten a raise for his kid but failed to notice that there were zero residuals/royalties for the future. The only pay Carl earned was his salary per-production. So while it looked good to him to pull in big money per show? He got nothing on the back-end. This was typical in the old days of Hollywood.
So when Carl grew up he had no nest egg. But he could live, and was a hard worker. He met and married a beauty from Kansas, who had moved to L.A. with her mom and sister to start her sister’s movie career. The beauty’s father was a wealthy farm equipment business-owner in Kansas, with a large farm to boot. In 1953, Carl married the young heiress. By 1956, with no acting gigs, no money, and a baby on the way — Carl and wife moved to Kansas to work for her dad. Carl was miserable.
By 1957, Carl divorced his heiress and returned to Los Angeles to reboot his own career. He figured enough time had passed to where he could be cast in prime leading drama and action roles with no hint of his earlier character. He was wrong.
Nobody wanted Carl in a reboot, and he was no Cary Grant. He called on old pals from his old studio days and only found work as an extra or in “featured” roles. Thanks to giants like Frank Capra and others who recalled him fondly, he was able to wrangle a few gigs. But all that was open were comedies and he saw himself in other ways. He dived in head first but wound up empty. But when he dived into the bottle, he came up wet.
In 1957 Carl had a severe drinking problem. He took to working “straight jobs” and odd jobs to make ends meet, including serving as a hunting guide and dog trainer — two hobbies he always loved. But work was scarce and booze was plentiful. He lost out on his hunting jobs and dog work for being drunk, and even missed auditions for the few roles he could get lined up to consider him.
Poor, desperate, and owing his heiress in Kansas money for child support — Carl turned to old pals at Columbia and MGM for an introduction to earning money. They in turn introduced him to “the boys”. The mob in Los Angeles. They figured they could use him in a variety of “roles”, and Carl was desperate enough to go along.
The mob in Los Angeles in the late 50s had been in turmoil for most of the decade. They were making tons of money, but this was an “open city” not ruled by any one clear family or group. Mostly it came down to boss Jack Dragna and his group fighting against Mickey Cohen at every turn. This brought unwanted attention, and lots of press. Not what the mafia traditionally enjoys.
One “player” in the L.A. mob scene was named Johnny Roselli — a good-looking, charismatic, playboy who spent more time with movie stars than with gangsters. “Handsome Johnny” was a go-between for the Chicago “Outfit” (from Al Capone to Sam Giancana) and the mob’s interests in Hollywood and Las Vegas.
One of Johnny Roselli’s associates was another suave mobster in Hollywood named Pat. Unlike Johnny, this guy was also a stone-cold psychopathic killer who was violent and had no remorse. He’d begun his career with Lucky Luciano, and repped Luciano’s interests in L.A. after the death of Bugsy. When muscle was needed, the mafia turned to Pat and his goons.
Pat Dicicco was his name, and he beat his women as hard as he beat his male victims. This included actress Thelma Todd (whom he reportedly murdered); and Three Stooges founder Ted Healy (whom Pat allegedly beat to death with a now-legendary movie producer). Pat was the opposite of Roselli in many ways, even though they reported to the same bosses.
Dicicco was a deadly hit man and gangster. Johnny Roselli was a bag man, fixer, and the man to see for outsiders wanting to make mob deals.
Carl the actor needed a deal, any deal, or anything to get a leg up. Unfortunately for Carl, the gangsters didn’t see him as he saw himself. Carl figured if he was a gangster, he’d be an A-Lister. He was famous, after all. So he’d be like Bugsy or Mickey Cohen or even Handsome Johnny. The mob saw Carl as a perfect patsy. They could use him as a front man, a face man for their cons, and as a cut-out in criminal plans.
With Carl’s profile they could use him to dupe others. He had acting skills didn’t he? So he’d be great in their extortion and blackmail schemes to rope in wealthy gay men and old lonely hearts widows. So when the mob demanded money not to reveal an alleged affair with Carl — they’d make bank from the scam. (Never mind that Carl was neither gay nor interested in old widows).
Better yet, the mob could use Carl as a straw man to front for bank loan frauds or as a corporate pitchman to work in their stock fraud schemes. He would be the perfect “face” for their white-collar, paper deals they were always running on unsuspecting corporations and executives. After all, who would refuse that silly, lovable character that Carl was known for? He was trustworthy, so they said.
Carl accepted the hazy details of the offer, and a large “front loan” with it. But Carl drank and gambled away his advance. And was expected to still make good on it through his work with the gangsters. Yet Carl still expected the mob to help his comeback into legit acting. They decided to explain it to him by showing him what they meant to use him for.
In late 1957, Carl was fixed up on a date with a beautiful young starlet at MGM. She was from a very wealthy family. For over a year, the mob had tried to muscle in to her family business and get co-ownership of the company and a skim of the profits. They were refused each time. They got Carl a date with the young lady, and she was thrilled to go out with such a “famous” young man. The mob had other plans for her.
During their date, Carl’s car was pulled over by fake cops, and the starlet was raped there in the car. She was brutalized by Pat the gangster and another monster of his. Carl tried to protest, fight, and finally leave — but was forced to watch. When it was all over, they left it on Carl to handle it. After all, he was the one who took her out that night and whom everyone saw with her. He was sick, guilty, and angry and spent the next two days in a drunken stupor.
With their other children in peril, the starlet’s family finally caved in to the mobsters, and she was sent to live in a convent having never recovered from her attack. Carl began tending bar inside a mob-owned bar in Studio City, as a way to earn living money and so the mob could use him when they needed.
They could also keep an eye on him.
In January 1958, Carl told the story of the starlet and the mob to a guy drinking with him in the mob bar. Soon after, Carl was exiting the bar when bullets shot through his windshield. He was hit in the shoulder, not an accident. It was a warning from the mob. Get to work re-paying them and keep his mouth shut. The cops took a police report but nobody was ever charged. Carl kept his mouth shut.
Carl gave in to the gangsters when he realized he would end up dead, or worse — his own family in Kansas would be harmed. The mobsters told him he needed to find ways to “earn” to pay back the money he’d lost that he still owed them. At Christmas he followed a plan for their scheme to steal Christmas trees and re-sell them in a mob parking lot in the Valley.
In December 1958 Carl was arrested for theft of fifteen pine trees cut out of the Sequoia National Forest illegally. He was fined and given probation, but kept his mouth shut to the cops. Meanwhile, he drank himself nearly to death several times. But Carl’s big problem was his alcohol and his mouth. So when Carl got too drunk, he tended to blab. Not good for the mob, and worse for Carl.
By late 1958, after his tree theft arrest, the mob was afraid Carl would turn into an informant. They were right. He had already had one meeting with a detective in LAPD’s famous squad (now known as the RHD). He wanted protection in exchange for information. He also wanted money. He didn’t understand it didn’t work that way. Carl had to have something valuable enough to trade with, and make himself valuable. But the cops promised to see what they could put together, and planned another meet in the coming weeks.
Carl would never make that meeting.
The mob had grown tired and nervous, and late one night Johnny Roselli himself was inside the bar. There was a meeting with several big shot people, and several unfamiliar faces. The bar was locked up for the night, but Carl was kept on to serve the men at the meeting. Unfortunately for Carl, he overheard too much…and these were BIG plans for things happening far away from Hollywood in exotic locations.
The next day, Carl desperately tracked down his LAPD contact to tell them about what he had overheard. He tried to piece it together but realized if he did, he’d have no leverage for himself. He told the detective that if he’d set him up with money and send him far away — he’d tell it all. The cop said he’d take it to his bosses.
It was December 1958.
For some reason, a guy named Bud had been trying to hire Carl to train dogs for his hunting adventures for a long while. He knew Carl from the bar, and Carl’s expertise with hunting dogs. So he offered to pay a lot to train his dog. Needing the money, Carl agreed. With Carl’s bad luck, the dog ran away. He offered a reward, and some guy returned the dog quickly. Carl thought nothing of it.
When Carl returned the dog to the owner, he refused to repay Carl for the reward money. It angered Carl, especially in his jam with his finances. Added to the pressures of his mob situation — Carl naturally dived into a bottle one night. With a drunken friend, Carl decided to go demand his money back.
Carl and his pal arrived at the home of the dog owner, this man named “Bud” who was a union leader and welder. What Carl never knew was that Bud also moonlighted for the mob as an inside man with the union — and as a low-level enforcer for Pat Dicicco. He was one of Pat’s “goon squad” for muscle in the 1950s.
They arrived at Bud’s house, with Bud’s family present. To this day there’s still about four stories of what went down there. The fact is that Carl was set up, and fought against Bud for the revolver which went off and accidentally shot Bud’s son in the leg by ricochet. When Carl’s drunken anger and stress took over he ended up shot dead and murdered by Bud.
It was planned, more or less, for Carl to be killed by Bud that night regardless of who instigated what.
When Carl had overheard the meeting’s details in the bar earlier? He had overheard things with names like Cuba, revolution, and angry mob boss revenge against Fidel Castro. These were the details Carl told to the LAPD detective. That cop kicked it up to his boss, who shared it with the FBI — all in hopes of getting official status to protect and pay Carl. What they didn’t know was that the FBI agents at that time, in that office, were also moonlighting on the payroll of the same mobsters under John Roselli’s direction.
Carl had hung himself.
On December 31, 1958 Castro overthrew the President of Cuba and threw out the mob. The mob planned revenge, even working with the FBI and CIA agents to make their plots into action. Pat was never brought to justice for is brutal crimes. John Roselli was found murdered, his body floating in a drum off the coast of Florida just before he was supposed to testify to Congress about mob involvement in CIA activities.
Less than one month later, on January 21, 1959, Carl Switzer was shot and murdered under a cloud of suspicion and conflicting stories. His status as an informant was never officially declared, approved, nor mentioned. The truth behind his murder was not even known by the family of the man who killed him.
Today, we all know and love that immortal character Carl Dean Switzer created as a kid. We see him and even hear his name and we smile thinking of that beloved kid and his pals’ hilarious hijinks.
Carl Dean Switzer will live forever on screen and in our hearts — known by his role as “Alfalfa” from the Our Gang (Little Rascals) series.
Alfalfa, and his portrayal we so enjoy, will never die.