William “Billie” Thomas Jr. (1931-1980)

Thomas as the Buckwheat character dressed in a suit with cane shaking a young girl's hand on the porch while a woman smiles in the background
William "Billie" Thomas Jr. in "The Little Rascals"
Courtesy Dennis Amith under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

William “Billie” Thomas Jr was a child actor who portrayed the character of Buckwheat in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) movie series. Thomas was born in Los Angeles, California, on March 12, 1931. Much of his early life is unknown. In 1934, three-year-old Thomas first appeared in Our Gang shorts, including For Pete’s Sake!, The First Round-Up, and Washee Ironee. Before he played  the Buckwheat character, it was initially played by Carlena Beard, a female actress and the younger sister of Our Gang actor Matthew Beard Jr, who played the character, Stymie.

In 1935, Thomas first appeared as Buckwheat in Mama’s Little Pirate. Although the Buckwheat character remained female, Thomas played it dressed as a Topsy-esque image of the stereotypical African American pickaninny with bowed pigtails, a large hand-me-down sweater, and oversized boots. The Buckwheat character would later turn into a boy after Matthew Beard left the show later that year.

Thomas’s character and costume changed to male in his appearance in the 1936 film, Pay as You Exit. His costume included overalls, a striped shirt, oversized shoes, and a giant unkempt Afro. During his first tenure on the show, his character was often paired with Eugene “Porky” Lee as a tag-along team of little kids who took on the bigger kids, George “Spanky” McFarland and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer.

Both the Buckwheat and Porky characters would be known for their collective garbled dialogue and their “O-tay!” catchphrase on the show. Thomas would be the only cast member to appear in all 52 MGM-produced episodes and was the only handover from the Hal Roach era to remain in the series until it ended in 1944.

In 1954, 23-year-old Thomas enlisted in the United States Army. He was released from active military service in 1956 after being decorated with a National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal. After the army, Thomas refused to return to acting despite being offered numerous film and stage roles.

William Thomas later had a successful career as a film lab technician with the Technicolor corporation. From July 30 to August 3, 1980, more than 500 fans gathered at the Los Angeles Hilton Hotel for the second annual meeting of  The Sons of The Desert, a reunion of the Our Gang stars and other actors from the 193os. Thomas was honored at this event along with his Our Gang co-stars.

William “Billie” Thomas died in Los Angeles on October 10, 1980, of a heart attack at the age of 49. Thomas was buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood. During his lifetime, Thomas had one son named William Thomas Jr.