Whatever Happened to Buckwheat?
'Buckwheat' as seen on Our Gang
It's always fascinating to find out what happens to child stars when they grow up. Many of them achieve success and stability as adults, but occasionally they lurch from stardom to the opposite extreme of anonymity and failure, as if dragged down by the weight of their early fame. According to a segment that aired on the prestigious news show 20/20
in October 1990, this seemed to be the fate of the actor who played Buckwheat in the 'Our Gang' comedies of the 1930s and '40s.
Buckwheat was the wide-eyed, African-American character played for almost ten years by William Thomas. He was famous for his signature phrase, "O-Tay!" After leaving the show, Thomas dropped from the public eye. 20/20
claimed that it had tracked him down to Tempe, Arizona where he was working at a low-paying job as a grocery bagger. It aired an interview with him in which he talked about the cruel twists and turns his life had taken.
Unfortunately for 20/20
, the man they interviewed was not William Thomas. Thomas had worked as a film lab technician before dying in 1980 at the age of 49. The man 20/20
interviewed was an impostor named Bill English who had been claiming to be Buckwheat for the past 30 years. The week after it aired the segment, 20/20
sheepishly admitted its mistake. In the ensuing scandal, a producer was fired and 20/20
was sued for negligence by the son of the real William Thomas.
"'20/20' Producer Resigns Over Buckwheat Interview." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 12 1990. Part F. Page 25.
Text copyright © 2002 Alex Boese