Born in Fort Worth, Texas but raised by his grandmother in Culver City, CA, Hanlon’s freckled face and little tough guy attitude helped land him his first role at age 10 in the Buster Keaton classic comedy The General. Spending six weeks on location with Keaton in Cottage Grove, Oregon, Hanlon played the little boy who follows Keaton back to his girlfriend’s home. I his later years, Hanlon would state that much of his performance wound up on the cutting room floor.
Following The General, Hanlon went to work at the Hal Roach studios where he appeared in two Our Gang comedies – The Glorious Fourth and Olympic Games.
Hanlon’s career peaked with a role in director William Wyler’s 1929 action/comedy The Shakedown, in which he appeared as an orphan who is taken in by a boxer. Made for just $50,000, the film was emblematic of many films produced during the transition from silent films to talkies, with only part of the film containing dialogue that had been recorded after the film had been shot. Long thought lost, a copy was discovered in the archives at the George Eastman House in 1998.
Hanlon only appeared in a handful of talkies over the remaining few years of his career before retiring from acting at the age of 16 in 1933. Reportedly one of his fondest film memories came during the 1930 film Romance when, while in an uncredited role as a street urchin, he received his first on screen kiss from none other than Greta Garbo. Garbo would receive an Academy Award nomination for her work in that film.
But for all his work in what we now see as historic films, Hanlon rarely earned more than $5 a day.
Following his acting career, Hanlon played minor league baseball and served as an Army Air Corps paratrooper during World War II. After the war, Hanlon worked as a furniture mover for Allied Van Lines before retiring to Las Vegas in the mid-1990s.