Archive for December 29th, 2009

No, It’s Not O-Tay!

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

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Remember Buckwheat – the Black child on the ‘Our Gang’ comedies? In the series, he was almost as popular as Spanky and Alfalfa and was famous for his phrase, “O-tay!” What became of him?

Many little rascals grew up to be big rascals. Trouble seemed to plague the players from strange deaths to suicides – even to murder. Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa, was shot to death over a $50 debt – he was 31. As a matter of fact, he was shot once before but survived. Strange? How many people can say they were shot on two different occasions?

But what happened to William Thomas, the young actor who played Buckwheat and then took a dive into oblivion? The respected investigative reporting show, 20/20 of ABC, decided to find out. In October, 1990, the show claimed it had tracked down Buckwheat to Tempe, Arizona where, sadly, he worked as a grocery bagger. In the televised interview. ‘Buckwheat’ told his sad tale and many viewers felt sorry for him. It was a great ‘riches-to-rags’ story except for one thing: the real Buckwheat, William Thomas, died over 10-years before the 20/20 show. His impostor, Bill English, pretended to be Buckwheat for over 30-years! Uh, oh.

Within a week, a red-faced ABC admitted its mistake, fired the producer of the piece – and was sued by the child star’s son.

William Thomas wouldn’t have liked any of this. He was a quiet, modest man, who worked for many years in Hollywood as a film lab technician. And he never could understand the nostalgia that was making famous, once again, the ‘Our Gang’ series which made him a fleeting star.

Nonetheless, in 1980, Mr. Thomas graciously accepted an invitation to a ‘Nostalgia TV’ convention. He doubted many people would even remember ‘Our Gang’ – much less what he considered his minor contribution. He was wrong. Even before his introduction was finished, the audience burst into a spontaneous, loud and long, standing ovation which moved him to tears.

It was Buckwheat’s last shining moment. Just three months later, Mr. William Thomas dropped dead of a heart attack. He was 49.