On this day in comedy on October 10, 1980 Actor, William “Billie” Thomas, Jr. died of a heart attack.
Known to the world as “Buckwheat” of Our Gang / Little Rascals fame (1934-1944), Thomas was born March 12, 1931 in Los Angeles, California. Although Thomas is synonymous with the groundbreaking black character, the original Buckwheat was a little girl, played in 1934 by Carlena Beard and later by Willie Mae Walton. Thomas was around during this time, but only as a background character. Even when Thomas took over the part in 1935 Buckwheat remained a girl; in dress and hairstyle. He didn’t make Buckwheat masculine until 1936 and Thomas wore trousers from then on out.
Thomas is the only child actor to appear in all the Our Gang comedies once they moved to MGM. He always felt Buckwheat’s treatment was equal to that of the other kids on the series; the white kids. However, various protest groups over years felt differently and the character carried a stigma from its inception. Regardless, Buckwheat was popular with fans. Along with his running buddy Porky, he’d gleefully mangle the English language in the tradition of early black entertainers. The fact was both children had speech impediments, but their malady was perfect for comedy. Where would we be without the catch-phrase, O-TAY?
Once the series ended, Thomas went into the Army and upon his return (with Honors) he had no interest in performing again. He was offered parts as many of the gang kids were, but he couldn’t see himself going through the rigors of a Hollywood actor’s life. Instead he learned film editing and made a career behind the scenes.
Though Thomas tried to live a quiet life, the character remained steeped in controversy whenever black images were examined. Eddie Murphy’s famous take-off of Buckwheat brought down the ire of George McFarland aka “Spanky”, who felt it reduced beloved Buckwheat into a mere stereotype. Whereas there were others who attempted to capitalize on the public’s fuzzy recollection of the iconic child star. The ABC newsmagazine show 20/20 ran an interview in 1990 with Bill English, a man who claimed to have originated the Buckwheat character. Once again the grown up Spanky stepped in to set the record straight. McFarland let it be known that Thomas had been dead for over 10 years and that English was a fraud. A producer from 20/20 was forced to resign and Thomas’s son sued. While all these shenanigans were transpiring the real Buckwheat (Billie Thomas) had passed away and was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in California.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton