Billie Thomas

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For other people of the same name, see William Thomas (disambiguation).
Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas
Billie Buckwheat Thomas.jpg
Thomas as '"Buckwheat"'
in Our Gang Follies of 1938.
Born William Thomas, Jr.
(1931-03-12)March 12, 1931
Los Angeles, California
Died October 10, 1980(1980-10-10) (aged 49)
Los Angeles, California
Cause of death
Heart attack
Other names Buckwheat
Occupation Child actor
Years active 1935-1944

William "Billie" Thomas, Jr. (March 12, 1931 – October 10, 1980) was an American child actor best remembered for portraying the character of Buckwheat in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) short films from 1934 until the series' end in 1944. He was a native of Los Angeles, California.

Our Gang[edit]

Although the character he played was often the subject of controversy in later years for containing elements of the "pickaninny" stereotype, Thomas always defended his work in the series, pointing out that Buckwheat and the rest of the black Our Gang kids were treated as equals to the white kids in the series.

Billie Thomas first appeared in the 1934 Our Gang shorts For Pete's Sake!, The First Round-Up, and Washee Ironee as a background player. The "Buckwheat" character was a female at this time, portrayed by Our Gang kid Matthew "Stymie" Beard's younger sister Carlena in For Pete's Sake!, and by Willie Mae Walton in three other shorts.

Thomas began appearing as "Buckwheat" with 1935's Mama's Little Pirate. Despite Thomas being a male, the Buckwheat character remained a female—dressed as a Topsy-esque image of the African-American "pickaninny" stereotype with bowed pigtails, a large hand-me-down sweater and oversized boots. After Stymie's departure from the series later in 1935, the Buckwheat character slowly morphed into a boy, first referred to definitively as a "he" in 1936's The Pinch Singer. This is similar to the initial handling of another African-American Our Gang member, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, who worked in the series during the silent and early sound eras.[1]

Despite the change in the Buckwheat character's gender, Billie Thomas's androgynous costuming was not changed until his appearance as a runaway slave in the 1936 Our Gang feature film General Spanky. This new costuming—overalls, striped shirt, oversized shoes, and a large unkempt Afro—was retained for the series proper from late 1936's Pay as You Exit on.[1]

Thomas remained in Our Gang for ten years, appearing in all but one of the shorts made from Washee Ironee in 1934 through the series' end in 1944. During the first half of his Our Gang tenure, Thomas' Buckwheat character was often paired with Eugene "Porky" Lee as a tag-along team of "little kids" rallying against (and often outsmarting) the "big kids," George "Spanky" McFarland and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer. Thomas had a speech impediment as a young child, as did Lee, who became Thomas' friend both on the set and off. The "Buckwheat" and "Porky" characters both became known for their collective garbled dialogue, in particular their catchphrase, "O-tay!" originally uttered by Porky, but soon shared by both characters.[1]

Thomas remained in Our Gang when the series changed production from Hal Roach Studios to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938. Thomas was the only Our Gang cast member to appear in all 52 MGM Our Gang shorts, and was also the only holdover from the Hal Roach era to remain in the series until its end in 1944. By 1940, Thomas had grown out of his speech impediment, and with Lee having been replaced by Robert Blake, Thomas's Buckwheat character was written as an archetypal black youth. He was twelve years old when the final Our Gang film, Dancing Romeo, was completed in November 1943.

Later life[edit]

After Our Gang was discontinued, Thomas enlisted in the US Army in 1954, and was released from active military service in 1956 decorated with a National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.

After returning to civilian life, Thomas faced a dilemma shared by many of his co-stars from Our Gang. Though offered many film and stage roles, he had no desire to return to Hollywood as an actor. “After the Army, I wasn't really interested in the hassle of performing," he explained shortly before his death in 1980. "Even the big stars had to chase around and audition; it seemed like a rat race to me, with no security."[1] However, Thomas still enjoyed the film industry at large, and had a successful career as a film lab technician with the Technicolor corporation. He ably took his experience in film work and learned the trade of film editing and cutting.[1]

Sons of the Desert Convention[edit]

In 1980, the Second International Convention of The Sons of the Desert took place at the Los Angeles Hilton Hotel, with more than 500 fans in attendance. Several days were spent touring famous Hollywood attractions, and then the highlight of the gathering took place in the hotel ballroom. Among those honored were fellow Our Gangers Spanky MacFarland, Dorothy DeBorba, Tommy Bond and Joe Cobb. When Thomas was brought out, he received a spontaneous standing ovation, and was moved to tears.[1]

Death[edit]

Thomas died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment on October 10, 1980, 46 years to the day after his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios.[1] Thomas is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.[2]

Controversies[edit]

Comedian Eddie Murphy did a series of Buckwheat sketches on Saturday Night Live during the 1980s.[3] Thomas's co-star George McFarland, who played "Spanky" in the Little Rascals, did not like Murphy's imitation, saying that Murphy turned Buckwheat into a stereotype at the expense of Thomas's surviving relatives.[3]

In 1990, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 aired a segment purporting to be an interview with Buckwheat, then a grocery bagger in Arizona. However, the interview was actually with a man named Bill English, who claimed to be the adult Buckwheat. English's appearance prompted public objections from George McFarland, who contacted media outlets following the broadcast to declare that he knew the true Buckwheat to have been dead for 10 years. Confronted directly by McFarland on the television newsmagazine A Current Affair, English refused to retreat from his claim, maintaining that he had originated the role of Buckwheat, with other actors playing the character only after he had left it. The next week, 20/20 acknowledged on-air English's claim had been false and apologized for the interview. Fallout from this incident included the resignation of a 20/20 producer,[4] and a negligence lawsuit filed by the son of William Thomas.[5] English died in 1994.[6]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Maltin, Leonard and Bann, Richard W. (1977, rev. 1992). The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang, p. 268. New York: Crown Publishing/Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-517-58325-9
  2. ^ "Spanky" McFarland discusses Buckwheat in a 1987 appearance on YouTube
  3. ^ a b Gehrt, Vicki. "His gang Spanky McFarland remembers his long stint as a `Little Rascal'", Chicago Tribune (1993-03-26).
  4. ^ "'20/20' Producer Resigns Over Buckwheat Interview." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 12 1990. Part F. Page 25.
  5. ^ Staff reporter (December 19, 1991). "Buckwheat actor's son sues ABC over phony". Associated Press via The Bulletin. Retrieved May 18, 2014. 
  6. ^ "Bill English dies; original Buckwheat". The Hour. 1994-11-25. 

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