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William BuckWheat Thomas
*BuckWheat Thomas was born on this date in 1931. He was a Black child actor best remembered for portraying the character of Buckwheat in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) short films.
William "Billie" Thomas, Jr. was a native of Los Angeles, California. In 1934 his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios, he worked in the series until the series' end in 1944. 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 episodes. 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.
Thomas always defended the stereotype critique of 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. Despite the change in the Buckwheat character's gender, Billie Thomas's genderless 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 episodes 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.
Thomas remained in Our Gang when the series changed production from Hal Roach Studios to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938 and was the only Our Gang cast member to appear in all 52 MGM Our Gang shorts. Thomas 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.
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 though offered many film and stage roles, he had no desire to return to Hollywood as an actor. However, Thomas still enjoyed the film industry at large, and became a successful film lab technician with the Technicolor Corporation. He took his experience in film work and learned the trade of film editing and cutting.
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.
William "Billie" Thomas, Jr. died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment on October 10, 1980. Coincidentally, exactly 46 years to the day after his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios. He is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.