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’20-20′ Admits ‘Buckwheat’ Was an Impostor

October 6, 1990 GMT

DALLAS (AP) _ The executive producer of ABC’s ″20-20″ acknowledged Saturday that the television show was duped by an impostor claiming to be Buckwheat from the classic ″Our Gang″ comedies.

William ″Billy″ Thomas, the actor who played Buckwheat, died nearly a decade ago.

On ″20-20″ Friday night, Hugh Downs narrated a segment in which the series claimed to have found Buckwheat working as a grocery bagger in Tempe, Ariz. The impostor, Bill English, said he had changed his last name from Thomas and refused to sign autographs because it would interfere with his work.


″20-20″ spokeswoman Maurie Perl said Saturday that Thomas’ obituaries proved English was a fake and the show would apologize during its next broadcast Friday.

″(Executive producer Victor Neufeld) feels indeed there was a lapse in the research done by the production team and we may very well have made a mistake,″ Ms. Perl said. ″Obviously we are upset and dismayed with the mistake.″

Thomas’ friends and family said they were angry the impostor received a national television audience.

Thomas died Oct. 10, 1980, of a heart attack at age 49, said his son, William Thomas Jr. of Covina, Calif.

The elder Thomas appeared in 89 ″Our Gang″ films, starting in 1934 - when he was 3 years old - until the series ended in 1944.

″I just can’t believe ’20-20′ didn’t investigate this better. I’m somewhat dumbfounded by the whole thing,″ Bill Thomas said Saturday.

″We did not mean to cause any pain or unpleasantness for any of Buckwheat’s family or friends,″ Ms. Perl said. ″With regard to the production team, obviously they will be reprimanded and that will be handled internally.″ Thomas, who runs Buckwheat Enterprises and makes a living licensing the character, said impostors threaten his business. He has filed several lawsuits to protect the name.

George McFarland, 62, the child star who played Buckwheat’s sidekick Spanky, said he spoke Saturday with Neufeld and the producer ″was terribly concerned about what had happened.″ McFarland, who lives in Fort Worth, said he too has been dogged by impostors.

Richard W. Bann, who co-wrote the 1976 book ″Our Gang, the Life and Times of the Little Rascals,″ with Leonard Maltin, said the error hurt the ABC news magazine show’s credibility.

″What kind of research is this? You would think that at this level of investigative reporting, you would catch something like this,″ he said from his Los Angeles home. ″It sort of undermines anything you’ll ever see on that show again. And next week, they’ll find Elvis.″

A Tempe viewer suggested the profile, said Ms. Perl.

″I don’t believe in the 12 years of the broadcast we have ever had such a problem and we will without question tighten all research and review processes,″ she said.

The ″Our Gang″ series, which included 221 short films and one of feature length, began in 1922 with the dual billing: ″Hal Roach presents his Rascals in their latest Our Gang comedy titled ...″

The term ″Little″ was added to ″Rascals″ when the films were broadcast on television beginning in 1955.

The series starred several child actors, including Robert Blake and Jackie Cooper. The kids had a pit bull named ″Pete the Pup″ with a circle painted around one eye.

A year to the day after Thomas died, Eddie Murphy began his parody of an adult Buckwheat on NBC’s ″Saturday Night.″