WILLIAM ”BILLIE” THOMAS JR.
Born in Los Angeles, California in 1931 his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios, he worked in the series until the series' end in 1944. Billie Thomas first appeared in the 1934 Our Gang shorts For Pete's Sake!, as a background player. The "Buckwheat" character was a female at this time. Thomas began appearing as "Buckwheat" with 1935's Mama's Little Pirate.
Despite Thomas being a male, the Buckwheat character remained a female dressed as a Topsy-esque image of the African American "pickaninny" stereotype with bowed pigtails, a large hand-me-down sweater and oversized boots. After Stymie's departure from the series later in 1935, the Buckwheat character slowly morphed into a boy, first referred to definitively as a "he" in 1936's The Pinch Singer. This is similar to the initial handling of another African American Our Gang member, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, who worked in the series during the silent and early sound eras.
Thomas always defended the stereotype critique of his work in the series, pointing out that Buckwheat and the rest of the black Our Gang kids were treated as equals to the white kids in the series. Despite the change in the Buckwheat character's gender, Billie Thomas's genderless costuming was not changed until his appearance as a runaway enslaved black in the 1936 Our Gang feature film General Spanky.
Thomas remained in Our Gang when the series changed production from Hal Roach Studios to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938 and was the only Our Gang cast member to appear in all 52 MGM Our Gang shorts. Thomas was also the only holdover from the Hal Roach era to remain in the series until its end in 1944. By 1940, Thomas had grown out of his speech impediment, and with Lee having been replaced by Robert Blake; Thomas's Buckwheat character was written as an archetypal black youth. He was twelve years old when the final Our Gang film was completed in November 1943.
The character of Buckwheat in later years became synonymous with derogatory stereotypes. However, the work of Thomas and the other black cast members as actors also was credited with helping the cause of race relations by playing alongside white children as equals in a desegregated show during the height of the Jim Crow Era.
After Our Gang, Thomas enlisted in the US Army in 1954, and was released from active military service in 1956 decorated with a National Defense Service Medal. Returning to civilian life, Thomas was offered many film and stage roles, but he had no desire to return as an actor. However, Thomas still enjoyed the film industry at large, and became a successful film lab technician with the Technicolor Corporation.
Thomas, Jr. died in his Los Angeles on October 10, 1980. Coincidentally, exactly 46 years to the day after his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios.
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