By Jim Campbell
October 30th, 2019
William Thomas JrWilliam Thomas Jr. (March 12, 1931 – October 10, 1980), known as Billie Thomas, 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.
William Thomas Jr. was the only son of William Thomas Sr., a janitor at the Wilton Apartment Building in Hollywood, California.
He was picked out of several kids to fill in the role of Stymie Beard who was leaving Our Gang as he neared his teenage years.
He was three years old at the time and his mother took him on a series of interviews.
All the kids had to have a certain sort of look, and Billie had that sort of look.
He started out at $40 a week and was loosely modeled after Farina who Stymie had replaced.
They were both named after cereal foods, wore the same patched clothing and like Farina, his sex, in the beginning, was a matter of debate.
Of course, having pigtails and inheriting the name “Buckwheat” after it had been used by young actresses named Carlena Beard, who was Stymie’s real-life sister, in For Pete’s Sake, and by Willie Mae Taylor in The First Round-Up, Honky Donkey, and Washee Ironee might have also had a part in it.
Along with Farina, Spanky and Joe Cobb, Billy was one of the most durable of the Our Gang stars; he was the only one of the original Hal Roach Studios stars still in the series when it ended in 1944.
Not fond of the “Buckwheat” costume, he was often in a hurry to get it off when filming was over, but he was also extremely shy, and that shyness affected the elocution of his speech at times.
He was a big fan of Clark Gable. While part of the Rascals, ten percent of his earnings were used in the purchase of United States Savings Bonds held in trust for him.
He also starred in a few feature films in his career.
By 1945, he dropped entirely out of acting.
Regular high school was not a pleasant time for him, but he did well in the U. S. Army.
Sergeant William Thomas Jr. of the 369th Colored Infantry was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery during an outnumbered battle with German soldiers.
In civilian life afterward, he got long and steady work as a film lab technician with Technicolor in Hollywood.
In 1955, he became a part of the short-lived Spanky Productions, Inc. to license the likenesses of the Rascals in merchandise.
During this time, he was reunited several times with Rascals co-stars, particularly bonding with Matthew Beard, who he had replaced.
In his free time, Bill dabbled as a citizen band “ham” radio operator.
Bill was impersonated several times in his life by other men who claimed that they were Buckwheat, but he was never bothered by it.
He laughed about it that others wanted to be like him. In fact, a standing ovation in his honor at an Our Gang banquet reunion in 1980 moved him to tears.
He was married once, but after the divorce, he was living alone near the University of Southern California when he passed away quietly at the age of 49, almost exactly to the day when he was hired to play Buckwheat.
The portrayal, though a bit controversial and satirical, created a lot of new interest in The Little Rascals once more.
Bill’s son, however, objected to the routine, but it was a few years after the routine that Eddie finally admitted to a reporter that he meant no disrespect to the character. Among Buckwheat’s other famous fans are music icon Michael Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg, who got to play Buckwheat‘s mother in The Little Rascals.
And Now you know!