No, It’s Not O-Tay!

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For their own reasons, people seem to love ‘riches-to-rags’ stories more than those that go from ‘rags-to-riches’. 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.

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3 Responses to “No, It’s Not O-Tay!”

  1. Bill says:

    Interesting story.

    The series ran for over 20 years, and the actors would have to be replaced periodically because kids have this irritating habit of growing up. The last actor to play Spanky was none other than Robert Blake. Yes, THAT Robert Blake. He played the role for five years.

    I really loved that show when I was a youngster and feel badly for what became of some cast members.

  2. Dave Tonk says:

    I attended Arizona State University In the nineties and got to know Bill “Doc” English. I lived right around the corner from the Smitty’s grocery store at Southern and Mill avenue where he worked. I met him while buying beer one day, he yelled toward me “hey Youngblood, looks like there’s a party somewhere”. I replied a bit apprehensively “Sure is, stop by if you want to”. “Doc” always being the industrious worker that he was declined. But from that day on he always called me “Youngblood”. I ran across him several times over the next couple years and got to know him a little bit, he was a good guy despite how he’s been portrayed by the media. I met him about 2 years after the 20/20 piece and the A Current
    Affair piece/ I was wondering if there was any way that you know of if I could somehow find that footage, I would be great to see and hear his voice again.

    -dave

  3. Frank Paolo says:

    Does anyone know how to help Dave find the ABC footage?
    Thanks.
    paolo.

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