Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas

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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
DiedOctober 10, 1980(1980-10-10) (aged 49)
Los Angeles, California
OccupationChild actor
Years active1935–1944

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.

Our Gang[edit]

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's 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 in the 1936 film Pay as You Exit. This new costuming — overalls, striped shirt, oversized shoes, and a large unkempt Afro — was retained for the series until the end. The reason for the change in appearance was so he could portray, in the 1936 Our Gang feature film General Spanky, a five-year-old slave asking men on a riverboat and, subsequently, shoeshine boy Spanky, "You be my master?".[1] In his Classic Movie Guide write-up for the film, Leonard Maltin surmises that "Buckwheat's role as slave in search of a master may displease contemporary audiences."[2]

Thomas remained in Our Gang for ten years, appearing in all but one of the shorts, Feed 'em and Weep (due to sickness when Philip Hurlic filled in for him), made from Washee Ironee in 1934 through the series' end in 1944. During the first half of his Our Gang tenure, Thomas's 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's 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 used 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 cast member to appear in all 52 of the MGM-produced entries and was 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.

The character of Buckwheat in later years became synonymous with the derogatory "pickaninny" stereotype.[3][4] However, the work of Thomas and the other black cast members as actors is credited with helping the cause of race relations by playing alongside white children as equals in a desegregated show during the height of the Jim Crow Era.[5] According to Julia Lee, author of Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals, Thomas and the others were "considered saviors in many ways" by the black community as the most popular black stars in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s.[5] Later, during the 1950s and 1960s, the NAACP fought against the tired and demeaning racial stereotypes and moved to have the television series ended.[5][6]

Later life[edit]

Thomas enlisted in the United States Army in 1954 at the age of 23, 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 took his experience in film work as a spark to learn the trade of film editing and cutting.[1]

Our Gang Fan Club[edit]

At "Hollywood 80", the second annual meeting of The Sons of the Desert, from July 30 to August 3, 1980, more than 500 fans gathered at the Los Angeles Hilton Hotel. Several days were spent touring famous Hollywood attractions, and then the highlight of the gathering took place in the hotel ballroom. Among those honored, on July 31, were fellow Our Gangers George McFarland, Dorothy DeBorba, Tommy Bond, and Joe Cobb. When Thomas was brought out, he received a spontaneous standing ovation, and was moved to tears.[1][7][8]

Death[edit]

On October 10, 1980, ten weeks after his July 31 appearance at the Hilton, Thomas died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment at the age of 49, forty-six years to the day after his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios.[1] Thomas is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood.[9]

Legacy[edit]

In 1950, Billy had a son and gave him the same name of William Thomas Jr. The son went on to graduate from California State Northridge University in 1975, then in 1992, created the Buckwheat Memorial Scholarship for students at Northridge in his honor.[10] In 2010, he wrote the book "Otay!" The Billy "Buckwheat" Thomas Story. On November 30, 2012, the son died at the age of 62.

Controversies[edit]

Eddie Murphy performed a series of Buckwheat sketches on Saturday Night Live during the 1980s when he was a cast member.[11] But Thomas's co-star George McFarland, who played "Spanky" in Little Rascals, made it clear that he hated Murphy's imitations. "I didn't care for them a bit. Mr. Murphy did a very poor imitation. He made Buckwheat into a stereotype that he wasn't, at the expense of the people in his family who are still alive."[11]

In 1990, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 aired a segment featuring a man named Bill English, then a grocery bagger in Arizona, who claimed to be the adult Buckwheat. English's appearance prompted public objections from McFarland, who contacted media outlets following the broadcast to inform them that the true Buckwheat had been dead for ten years. Despite being confronted by McFarland on the television newsmagazine A Current Affair, English, who died four years later at the age of 60, 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.[12]

The next week, 20/20 acknowledged, on-air, that English's claim had been false and apologized for the interview. The fallout from this incident included the resignation of a 20/20 producer[13] and a negligence lawsuit filed by the son of William Thomas.[14]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Maltin, Leonard and Bann, Richard W. (November 24, 1992). "The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang". Crown Publishing (1977); Three Rivers Press (updated edition, 1992). Retrieved March 12, 2020.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) ISBN 0-517-58325-9
  2. ^ General Spanky at Turner Classic Movies Presents Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide (Penguin, 2015)
  3. ^ Jackson, Ronald L. (2006). Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics. Albany: State University of New York. p. 27. ISBN 9780791466254.
  4. ^ Pilgrim, David (October 2000). "The Picaninny Caricature". Jim Crow Museum. Ferris State University. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Siegel, Robert (25 December 2015). "'Our Gang' Chronicles Lives Of African-American Actors In 'The Little Rascals'". All Things Considered. National Public Radio. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  6. ^ Lee, Julia (30 December 2015). Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals. University Of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816698226.
  7. ^ "Yes, I Met Buckwheat" (The Terrible Catsafterme, May 22, 2007)
  8. ^ Thomas, William Jr.; Menefee, David W. (February 1, 2010). "Otay!" The Billy "Buckwheat" Thomas Story. Bear Manor Media. Retrieved February 5, 2019.
  9. ^ "Spanky" McFarland discusses Buckwheat in a 1987 appearance on YouTube
  10. ^ Wallace, Amy (8 November 1992). "Scholarship Keeps Controversial Image in the Spotlight : Education: Despite criticism, the son of the actor who played Buckwheat sees grant as a way to preserve his father's legacy". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  11. ^ a b Gehrt, Vicki. "His gang Spanky McFarland remembers his long stint as a `Little Rascal'", Chicago Tribune (1993-03-26).
  12. ^ "Bill English dies; original Buckwheat". The Hour. Norwalk, Connecticut. Associated Press. November 25, 1994. Retrieved February 5, 2020.
  13. ^ "'20/20' Producer Resigns Over Buckwheat Interview." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 12 1990. Part F. Page 25.
  14. ^ "Buckwheat actor's son sues ABC over phony". The Bulletin. Bend, Oregon. Associated Press. December 19, 1991. Retrieved May 18, 2014.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Matthew "Stymie" Beard
Our Gang
1934-1944
Succeeded by
Remained until series' end