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Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas

Thomas as '"Buckwheat"'
in Our Gang Follies of 1938.
Born March 12, 1931(1931-03-12)
Los Angeles, California
U.S.
Died October 10, 1980 (aged 49)
Los Angeles, California
U.S.
Occupation Film actor

Billie Thomas (originally William 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.

Contents

Biography

Our Gang

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. The 1980s Little Rascals animated series adapted from the Our Gang comedies addressed the problem by changing Buckwheat into a clever inventor who is always building ingenious machines for the gang.

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 Taylor 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

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.[3] 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.[3]

Billie Thomas remained in Our Gang when the series changed production from Hal Roach Studios to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938. Thomas in fact became 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 archetypical Black youth. He was twelve years old when the final Our Gang film, Dancing Romeo, was completed in November 1943.

Later life

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."[4] However, Thomas still enjoyed the film industry at large, and became a successful film lab technician with the Technicolor corporation. He ably took his experience in film work and learned the trade of film editing and cutting.[4] Over the following years, he worked on several prominent motion pictures, including Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run.[citation needed]

The world did not allow Thomas to grow up. As millions of kids around the world watched him daily on television, he retreated to the private seclusion of a quiet lifestyle in Los Angeles. He went to work every day, came home each night, and played with his ham radio, but just outside the door, curiosity seekers continued to call him “Buckwheat.”[4]

Sons of the Desert Convention

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.[4]

Seclusion

Despite the fan adoration, Thomas kept to himself, and friends including Our Gang costar Stymie Beard took notice. He even avoided attending Darla Hood’s funeral in June 1979 by saying he was out of town. Beard caught up with Thomas, and advised him to spend more time with his father. Thomas responded with “No, I just think I need to go on a diet. If I don’t lose some weight, I’ll be dead before I turn fifty.”[citation needed]

Death

Thomas' weight eventually caught up with him. He died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment on October 10, 1980. Coincidentally, Thomas died exactly 46 years to the day after his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios.[4] Thomas is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood California.[5]

Controversies

Saturday Night Live

After Thomas's death, his character was parodied by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live in an advertisement for the (fictitious) album, Buh-Weet Sings. Murphy's exaggerated portrayal of Buckwheat had the child actor supposedly retaining his tangled, unkempt hair and inarticulate speech even into adulthood. The skit contained the opening line which later became an SNL classic: "Hi, Ah'm Buh-Weet. Amembah me?" ("Hi, I'm Buckwheat. Remember me?") and Buckwheat performing popular music standards using stereotypical vernacular pronunciations (e.g., the Commodores' "Three Times a Lady" as "Fee Tines a Mady"). The record advertisement sketch was Murphy's first appearance as Buckwheat, and was performed on SNL a year to the day after Thomas's death. William Thomas, Jr. strongly protested Murphy's sketch.

Murphy performed as Buckwheat in several other sketches throughout his tenure on SNL, including an "Our Gang" reunion (featuring host Robert Blake) and an elaborate, two-part parody in which Buckwheat is assassinated (in circumstances reminiscent of the recent attempt on Ronald Reagan's life), conferring instant fame upon his triple-named assassin John David Stutts—also played by Murphy—who is himself assassinated in a manner similar to Lee Harvey Oswald.

20/20

In 1990, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 aired a segment purporting to be an interview with Buckwheat, now a downtrodden minimum wage grocery bagger in Arizona. However, the interview was actually with a man named Bill English, who had made a career of claiming to be the adult Buckwheat. By the next week, 20/20 had learned of their error (George "Spanky" McFarland personally contacted the media following the broadcast), that the true Buckwheat had been dead for 10 years, and admitted their mistake on-air. Fallout from this incident included the resignation of a 20/20 producer, and a negligence lawsuit filed by the son of William Thomas.[6] The impostor, Bill English, died in 1994, still claiming to be the real Buckwheat cast member.

Other controversies

In 2007, Louisiana State Representative Carla Dartez, a Democrat, came under fire from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for calling one of her female volunteers "Buckwheat." The local chapter of the NAACP threw its support behind her Republican opponent, who won the November 17, 2007 run-off election. [7]

References

  1. ^ Maltin, Leonard & Bann, Richard W (1977, rev. 1992). The Little Rascals: The Life & Times of Our Gang. New York: Crown Publishing/Three Rivers Press. ISBN 051-758325-9. p. 166.
  2. ^ Maltin, Leonard & Bann, Richard W (1977, rev. 1992). The Little Rascals: The Life & Times of Our Gang. New York: Crown Publishing/Three Rivers Press. ISBN 051-758325-9. p. 267.
  3. ^ a b Maltin, Leonard & Bann, Richard W (1977, rev. 1992). The Little Rascals: The Life & Times of Our Gang. New York: Crown Publishing/Three Rivers Press. ISBN 051-758325-9. p. 272.
  4. ^ a b c d e 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
  5. ^ "Spanky" McFarland discusses Buckwheat in a 1987 appearance
  6. ^ "'20/20' Producer Resigns Over Buckwheat Interview." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 12 1990. Part F. Page 25.
  7. ^ [http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories /C/CANDIDATE_BUCKWHEAT_REMARK?SITE=FLTAM&SECTION=US La. Pol's 'Buckwheat' Remark Draws Ire]

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