William “Billie” Thomas Jr. was an American child actor best known for playing the role of Buckwheat in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) short films from 1934 to 1944. He was the only cast member to appear in all 52 of the MGM-produced sound shorts and the only African American to have a prominent role in the series.
Thomas was born in Los Angeles, California, on March 12, 1931, to William and Ruby Thomas. He had two older sisters, Gloria and Juanita. He was discovered by a talent scout at the age of three and was cast as a background player in the Our Gang films. He soon became a fan favorite for his adorable appearance and his catchphrases such as “O-tay!” and “I don’t know”.
Thomas’s character Buckwheat was originally portrayed as a female, wearing braided hair and dresses. However, in 1936, the producers decided to reveal Buckwheat’s true gender and gave him a boyish haircut and clothes. Thomas continued to play Buckwheat until he outgrew the role at the age of 13. He retired from acting after his final Our Gang film, Dancing Romeo, in 1944.
Thomas served in the US Army during the Korean War and later worked as a film lab technician for Technicolor. He married twice and had one son, William Jr., with his first wife. He remained close friends with some of his former co-stars, such as Spanky McFarland and Darla Hood. He also made occasional appearances at film festivals and conventions.
Thomas died of a heart attack on October 10, 1980, at the age of 49. He was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978. He is widely regarded as one of the most memorable and beloved child stars of all time.