No, It’s Not O-Tay!


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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5 Responses to “No, It’s Not O-Tay!”

  1. Joe Belle-Isle says:

    He left this world at 49 but you can bet your life and the lives of the next ten generations that “Buckwheat,” will remain forever an American pioeer in the entertainment industry. What’s really sad is that his heart attack at 49 would probably be easily prevented by some simple blood pressure lowering diuretics, and even then by a yearly checkup with a good doctor. We wait too long to check on the faces that we love. I understand Alfalfa was a somewhat troubled child star playing a kid into his late teens and making himself hard to work with doing things like peeing on the boiling hot stagelights in a poorly ventilated studio. To me that’s a neat thing to be rememberred for, despite his hard times.

  2. Steve says:

    “Say, what’s this retouch business”
    “That’s when they touch your nose, and then, they touch it again, that’s called retouch”
    Those shows…man, hilarious stuff. And when you watch them, the long static shots, for example, when Spanky put some soap in Alfalfa’s soup because he was flirting with Darla, the camera is locked on Alfalfa….then, he goes from tasting his soup, enjoying it, realizing something is wrong with it, then makes this “eww” face…but it’s a long, static shot that is hilarious, but in todays, “cut-edit-cut-CGI-CGI-product placement” Generation, they would just never get it.
    I always liked Stymie.
    “Hey Stymie, where ya goin’?”
    “I don’t know, Brother, but I’m on my way”
    OK, who was the other black child actor’s character? There was Stymie, Buckwheat…there was another, he was pals with Chubby…when they tried to sabotage Mrs. Crabtree’s marriage. They thought she was leaving, but was just getting married and changing her name.
    “What else did you boys say about me?”
    “We said you had a mean temperature”
    “And then, we said you had a wooden leg”
    I remember too, sunday mornings, Laurel and Hardy at 11:00, then Abbott and Costello at 11:30.
    Church? This IS the Gospel, right, here.: – )
    Great stuff.

  3. amy stahl says:

    getting to press the “go” button while the crowd is still cheering..
    (heart attack rt after that bit)

    sweet topic Franco. the imposter thing –for whatever reason– and like anastasia claims or something.. but wayyyy out … lmao

    I enjoyed your comments too Steve and Joe.

  4. Joe Belle-Isle says:

    It is a fact of life that we grow to love people we have never met That entertain us, and miss when we find out years and years later that they had sad fates. Right now the highlight of my days play is reading a new observation by Mr. Frank. And at our age whenever or whatever our time comes we will have at least spent interesting not sad lives.. Writing that’s not intended to belittle or harm others and brings a laugh has a good chance of becoming a classic. I can imagine students in the 21st century studying Samuel Clemens, reading that his work evolved into people like Paolo. People of their time that like the “OUR GANG” kids live forever because they are so much like kids and pranks of all times.

  5. paolo. says:

    I am very moved by this, Joe. Thank you.

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