Gorcey was born in New York City, the son of Josephine (née Condon) and Bernard Gorcey, vaudeville actors. His mother was 16 years old at the time of his birth, and was already a mother at 14; his father was 31 years old. Both were small people. Bernard Gorcey was 4' 10", and his wife was 4' 11". Their son Leo would reach 5' 6" as an adult. In 1921, another son was born, David Gorcey. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant and his mother was an Irish Catholic immigrant.
In the 1930s, Leo's father became estranged from the family while working in theater and film. When he returned in 1935, he and David persuaded Leo to try out for a small part in the play Dead End. Having just lost his job as a plumber's apprentice and seeing his father's relative success, Leo decided to give acting a try. Leo and David were cast as two members of the East 53rd Place Gang, with limited stage time. Charles Duncan, who was originally cast as Spit, left the play, and Leo, his understudy, was promoted. Gorcey created a quarrelsome guttersnipe whose greatest joy was in making trouble.
In 1937, Samuel Goldwyn made the popular play into a movie of the same name, and transported the six boys to Hollywood. Gorcey became one of the busiest actors in Hollywood for the next 20 years.
- From 1937 to 1939, he starred in 7 Dead End Kids movies, where he played characters with various names
- From 1940 to 1945, he starred in 21 East Side Kids movies, where he played the character named Ethelbert "Muggs" McInnis/McGinnis/Maloney
- From 1946 to 1956, he starred in 41 Bowery Boys movies, where he played the character named Terence Aloysius "Slip" Mahoney
In the Bowery Boys movies, Leo's father, Bernard Gorcey, played Louie Dumbrowski, the diminutive sweetshop owner from whom the boys conned banana splits and financial loans. Leo's character "Slip" was famed for his malapropisms always delivered in a Brooklyn accent, such as "a clever seduction" for "a clever deduction", "I depreciate it!" ("I appreciate it!"), "I regurgitate" ("I reiterate"), and "optical delusion" ("optical illusion"). In the movie Jungle Gents, in which the Bowery Boys went to Africa, Huntz Hall lost the map and substituted a newspaper ad for lingerie. When Slip saw it, he said, "This ain't a map—it's an ad for ladies' griddles! [girdles]"
In 1939, Gorcey married 17-year-old dancer Kay Marvis, who appeared in four of his Monogram movies. They divorced in 1944, after which Kay went on to become the second wife of Groucho Marx. In 1949, Gorcey married Amelita Ward, with whom he had worked in Clancy Street Boys and Smugglers' Cove. She gave birth to Leo Gorcey, Jr., during their marriage.
Also in 1944, Gorcey had a recurring role in the Pabst Blue Ribbon Town radio show, starring Groucho Marx. In 1948, Gorcey played a small role in the sophisticated movie comedy So This Is New York starring acerbic radio and television comedian Henry Morgan and featuring Arnold Stang.
In 1955, after his father was killed in an automobile accident, Leo turned to the bottle for solace and lost a great deal of weight. When he trashed a movie set in an intoxicated rage, the studio refused to give him the pay raise he demanded, so he quit the Bowery Boys and was replaced in the last seven movies by Stanley Clements. Leo's brother David remained with the series until it ended in early 1958.
During the 1960s, Leo did very little acting. He did appear in the epic 1963 comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, sharing the screen with Sid Caesar and Edie Adams in a bit part as their first cab driver, their second being Peter Falk. Gorcey then made two final appearances on film with Huntz Hall in a pair of low budget productions: Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar (1966) and The Phynx (1970).
Life after acting
In 1967, Leo Gorcey published his autobiography, entitled An Original Dead End Kid Presents: Dead End Yells, Wedding Bells, Cockle Shells, and Dizzy Spells. The original publication was limited to 1,000 hardcover copies. A 2004 reprint, with a foreword by Leo Gorcey, Jr., was also limited to 1,000 numbered copies. In addition, in 2003, Gorcey, Jr., published his own book about his father, entitled Me and the Dead End Kid.
Gorcey was removed from the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album after his agent demanded a payment of $400.
Gorcey's first cousin, twice removed, is sports writer Ryan Gorcey. Another of Gorcey's first cousins, twice removed, is actress Liz Gorcey. Most known for her role in Footloose.
Gorcey died from liver failure on June 2, 1969, one day before his 52nd birthday. He is buried at Molinos Cemetery in Los Molinos, California.