Billie Thomas (originally William Thomas, Jr.) (March 12, 1931 - October 10, 1980) was an American child actor best remembered for portraying the character of Buckwheat in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) short films from 1934 until the series' end in 1944. He was a native of Los Angeles, California.
Although the character he played was often the subject of controversy in later years for containing elements of the "pickaninny" stereotype, Thomas always defended 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. The 1980s Little Rascals animated series adapted from the Our Gang comedies addressed the problem by changing Buckwheat into a clever inventor who is always building ingenious machines for the gang.
Billie Thomas first appeared in the 1934 Our Gang shorts For Pete's Sake!, The First Round-Up, and Washee Ironee as a background player. The "Buckwheat" character was a female at this time, portrayed by Our Gang kid Matthew "Stymie" Beard's younger sister Carlena in For Pete's Sake!, and by Willie Mae Taylor in three other shorts.
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.
Despite the change in the Buckwheat character's gender, Billie Thomas's androgynous costuming was not changed until his appearance as a runaway slave in the 1936 Our Gang feature film General Spanky. This new costuming overalls, striped shirt, oversized shoes, and a large unkempt Afro was retained for the series proper from late 1936's Pay as You Exit on.
Thomas remained in Our Gang for ten years, appearing in all but one of the shorts made from Washee Ironee in 1934 through the series' end in 1944. During the first half of his Our Gang tenure, Thomas' Buckwheat character was often paired with Eugene "Porky" Lee as a tag-along team of "little kids" rallying against (and often outsmarting) the "big kids," George "Spanky" McFarland and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer. Thomas had a speech impediment as a young child, as did Lee, who became Thomas' friend both on the set and off. The "Buckwheat" and "Porky" characters both became known for their collective garbled dialogue, in particular their catchphrase, "O-tay!" originally uttered by Porky, but soon shared by both characters.
Billie Thomas remained in Our Gang when the series changed production from Hal Roach Studios to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938. Thomas in fact became the only Our Gang cast member to appear in all 52 MGM Our Gang shorts, and 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 archetypical Black youth. He was twelve years old when the final Our Gang film, Dancing Romeo, was completed in November 1943.
After Our Gang was discontinued, Thomas enlisted in the US Army in 1954, and was released from active military service in 1956 decorated with a National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.
After returning to civilian life, Thomas faced a dilemma shared by many of his co-stars from Our Gang. Though offered many film and stage roles, he had no desire to return to Hollywood as an actor. After the Army, I wasn't really interested in the hassle of performing," he explained shortly before his death in 1980. "Even the big stars had to chase around and audition; it seemed like a rat race to me, with no security." However, Thomas still enjoyed the film industry at large, and became a successful film lab technician with the Technicolor corporation. He ably took his experience in film work and learned the trade of film editing and cutting. Over the following years, he worked on several prominent motion pictures, including Steven Spielberg's Jaws and Michael Anderson's Logan's Run.
The world did not allow Thomas to grow up. As millions of kids around the world watched him daily on television, he retreated to the private seclusion of a quiet lifestyle in Los Angeles. He went to work every day, came home each night, and played with his ham radio, but just outside the door, curiosity seekers continued to call him Buckwheat.
Sons of the Desert Convention
In 1980, the Second International Convention of the Sons of the Desert took place at the Los Angeles Hilton Hotel, with more than 500 fans in attendance. Several days were spent touring famous Hollywood attractions, and then the highlight of the gathering took place in the hotel ballroom. Among those honored were fellow Our Gangers Spanky MacFarland, Dorothy DeBorba, Tommy Bond and Joe Cobb. When Thomas was brought out, he received a spontaneous standing ovation, and was moved to tears.
Despite the fan adoration, Thomas kept to himself, and friends including Our Gang costar Stymie Beard took notice. He even avoided attending Darla Hood's funeral in June 1979 by saying he was out of town. Beard caught up with Thomas, and advised him to spend more time with his father. Thomas responded with No, I just think I need to go on a diet. If I don't lose some weight, I'll be dead before I turn fifty.
Thomas' weight eventually caught up with him. He died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment on October 10, 1980. Coincidentally, Thomas died exactly 46 years to the day after his mother brought him to audition at the Hal Roach Studios. Thomas is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
Saturday Night Live
After Thomas's death, his character was parodied by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live in an advertisement for the (fictitious) album, Buh-Weet Sings. Murphy's exaggerated portrayal of Buckwheat had the child actor supposedly retaining his tangled, unkempt hair and inarticulate speech even into adulthood. The skit contained the opening line which later became an SNL classic: "Hi, Ah'm Buh-Weet. Amembah me?" ("Hi, I'm Buckwheat. Remember me?") and Buckwheat performing popular music standards using stereotypical vernacular pronunciations (e.g., the Commodores' "Three Times a Lady" as "Fee Tines a Mady"). The record advertisement sketch was Murphy's first appearance as Buckwheat, and was performed on SNL a year to the day after Thomas's death. William Thomas, Jr. strongly protested Murphy's sketch.
Murphy performed as Buckwheat in several other sketches throughout his tenure on SNL, including an "Our Gang" reunion (featuring host Robert Blake) and an elaborate, two-part parody in which Buckwheat is assassinated (in circumstances reminiscent of the recent attempt on Ronald Reagan's life), conferring instant fame upon his triple-named assassin John David Stutts also played by Murphy who is himself assassinated in a manner similar to Lee Harvey Oswald.
In 1990, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 aired a segment purporting to be an interview with Buckwheat, now a downtrodden minimum wage grocery bagger in Arizona. However, the interview was actually with a man named Bill English, who had made a career of claiming to be the adult Buckwheat. By the next week, 20/20 had learned of their error (George "Spanky" McFarland personally contacted the media following the broadcast), that the true Buckwheat had been dead for 10 years, and admitted their mistake on-air. Fallout from this incident included the resignation of a 20/20 producer, and a negligence lawsuit filed by the son of William Thomas. The impostor, Bill English, died in 1994, still claiming to be the real Buckwheat cast member.
In 2007, Louisiana State Representative Carla Dartez, a Democrat, came under fire from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for calling one of her female volunteers "Buckwheat." The local chapter of the NAACP threw its support behind her Republican opponent, Joe Harrison, who won the November 17, 2007 run-off election.
In 2010, during a speech to Broward County Republicans against the pending health care reform bill, Corey Poitier a Republican candidate running for U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek's seat addressed President Obama by saying "Listen up, Buckwheat"
Our Gang, also known as The Little Rascals or Hal Roach's Rascals, was a series of American comedy
short films about a group of poor neighborhood children and the adventures they had together.
Created by comedy producer Hal Roach, Our Gang was produced at the Roach studio starting in 1922 as
a silent short subject series. Roach changed distributors from Path to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
in 1927, went to sound in 1929 and continued production until 1938, when he sold the series to MGM.
MGM in turn continued producing the comedies until 1944. A total of 220 shorts and one feature
film, General Spanky, were eventually produced, featuring over forty-one child actors. In the mid-
1950s, the 80 Roach-produced shorts with sound were syndicated for television under the title The
Little Rascals, as MGM retained the rights to the Our Gang trademark.
The series is noted for showing children behaving in a relatively natural way. While child actors
are often groomed to imitate adult acting styles, steal scenes, or deliver "cute" performances, Hal
Roach and original director Robert F. McGowan worked to film the unaffected, raw nuances apparent
in regular children. Our Gang also notably put boys, girls, whites and blacks together in a group
as equals, something that "broke new ground," according to film historian Leonard Maltin. Such a
thing had never been done before in cinema but was commonplace after the success of Our
About the series
Unlike many other motion pictures featuring children that are based in fantasy, producer/creator
Hal Roach rooted Our Gang in real life: the majority of the children were poor, and the gang was
often put at odds with snobbish "rich kids", officious adults and parents, and other such
adversaries. The series was notable in that the gang included both African-Americans and females in
leading parts at a time when discrimination against both groups was commonplace.
Senior director Robert F. McGowan helmed most of the Our Gang shorts until 1933, assisted by his
nephew Anthony Mack. He worked hard to develop a style that allowed the children to be as natural
as possible, downplaying the importance of the filmmaking equipment. Scripts were written for the
shorts by the Hal Roach comedy writing staff, which included at various times Leo McCarey, Frank
Capra, Walter Lantz and Frank Tashlin, among others. The children, some of them too young to read,
very rarely saw the scripts; instead McGowan would explain the scene to be filmed to each child
immediately before it was shot, directing the children using a megaphone and encouraging
improvisation. Of course, when sound came in at the end of the 1920s, McGowan was forced to modify
his approach slightly, but scripts were not adhered to until McGowan left the series. Later Our
Gang directors such as Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas used a more streamlined approach to McGowan's
methods, in order to meet the demands of the increasingly sophisticated movie industry of the mid
to late 1930s. Douglas in particular was forced to streamline his films, as he directed Our Gang
after Roach was forced to halve the running times of the shorts from two reels (20 minutes) to one
reel (10 minutes).
Finding and replacing the cast
As the children grew too old to be in the series, they were replaced by new children, usually from
the Los Angeles area. Eventually, Our Gang talent scouting was done using large-scale national
contests, where thousands of children (often at the behest of their parents) tried out for one open
role. Norman "Chubby" Chaney (who replaced Joe Cobb), Matthew "Stymie" Beard (who replaced Allen
"Farina" Hoskins) and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas (who replaced Stymie) all won major contests to
become members of the gang. Even when there was not a massive talent search going on, the Roach
studio was bombarded by requests from parents who were certain their children were perfect for the
series. Among these were future child stars Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, all of
whom never made it past the audition stage.
African-Americans in Our Gang
The Our Gang series is notable for being one of the first times in cinema history that blacks and
whites were portrayed as equals, though a number of people, including members of the African-
American community, do not look favorably upon the characters of the black children today. The four
black child actors who held main-character roles in the series were Ernie "Sunshine Sammy"
Morrison, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas. Ernie
Morrison was, in fact, the first black actor signed to a long-term contract in Hollywood history,
and was the first major black star in Hollywood history as well. In the 1940s he was the only black
cast member in the popular East Side Kids film series.
In their adult years, Morrison, Beard and Thomas became some of Our Gang's staunchest defenders,
maintaining that its integrated cast and innocent story lines were far from racist. They explained
that the white children's characters in the series were similarly stereotyped: the "freckle-faced
kid," the "fat kid," the "neighborhood bully", the "pretty blond girl," and the "mischievous
toddler." "We were just a group of kids who were having fun," Stymie Beard recalled. Ernie Morrison
stated that "when it came to race, Hal Roach was color-blind". Other minorities, including Asian
Americans (Sing Joy, Allen Tong, and Edward Zoo Hoo) and Italian Americans (Mickey Gubitosi), were
also depicted in the series, with varying levels of "stereotyping" commonplace in the stylized,
slapstick comedy tradition in which the Our Gang films are firmly rooted.
According to Roach, the idea for Our Gang came to him in 1921, when he was auditioning a child
actress to appear in one of his films. The girl was, in his opinion, overly made up and overly
rehearsed, and Roach patiently waited for the audition to be over. After the girl and her mother
left the office, Roach looked out of his window to a lumberyard across the street, where he saw a
group of children having an argument. The children had all taken sticks from the lumberyard to play
with, but the smallest child had taken the biggest stick, and the others were trying to force him
to give it to the biggest child. After realizing that he had been watching the children bicker for
15 minutes, Roach thought a short film series about children just being themselves might be a
Under the supervision of Charley Chase, work began on the first two-reel shorts in the new "kids-
and-pets" series, which was to be called Hal Roach's Rascals, later that year. Director Fred
Newmeyer helmed the first version of the pilot film, entitled Our Gang, but Roach scrapped
Newmeyer's work and had former fireman Robert F. McGowan re-shoot the short. Roach tested it at
various theaters around Hollywood. The attendees were very receptive, and the press clamored for
"lots more of those 'Our Gang' comedies." The colloquial usage of the term Our Gang led to its
becoming the series' second (yet more popular) official title, with the title cards reading "Our
Gang Comedies: Hal Roach presents His Rascals in..." The series was officially called both Our Gang
and Hal Roach's Rascals until 1932, when Our Gang became the sole title of the series.
The first cast of Our Gang was recruited primarily from children recommended to Roach by studio
employees, including photographer Gene Kornman's daughter Mary Kornman, their friends' son Mickey
Daniels, Roach child actor Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison and family friends Allen "Farina"
Hoskins, Jack Davis, Jackie Condon and Joe Cobb. Most of the early shorts were shot outdoors and on
location, and also featured a menagerie of comic animal characters, such as Dinah the Mule.
Roach's distributor Path released One Terrible Day, the fourth short to be produced for the
series, as the first Our Gang short on September 10, 1922; the pilot Our Gang was not released
until November 5. The Our Gang series was a success from the start, with the children's naturalism,
the funny animal actors, and McGowan's direction making a successful combination. The shorts did
well at the box office, and by the end of the decade the Our Gang children were pictured on
numerous product endorsements.
The biggest Our Gang stars in this period were Sunshine Sammy around whom the series was
structured; Mickey Daniels; Mary Kornman; and little Farina who eventually became both the most
popular member of the 1920s gang, and the most popular African-American child star of the 1920s.
Mickey and Mary were also very popular, and were often paired together in both Our Gang and a later
teenaged version of the series called The Boy Friends, which Roach produced from 1930 to 1932.
Other early Our Gang children were Eugene "Pineapple" Jackson, Scooter Lowry, Andy Samuel, Johnny
Downs, and Jay R. Smith.
After Sammy, Mickey and Mary left the series in the mid-1920s, the Our Gang series entered a
transitional period. McGowan was often sick and unable to work on the series, leaving nephew Robert
A. McGowan (credited as Anthony Mack) to direct many of the shorts from this period. The Mack-
directed shorts are considered to be among the lesser entries in the series. New faces included
Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Harry Spear, Jean Darling and Mary Ann Jackson, while stalwart Farina
served as the series' anchor.
Also at this time, the Our Gang children acquired an American Pit Bull Terrier with a ring around
his eye; originally named "Pansy", the dog soon became known as Pete the Pup, the most famous Our
Gang pet. During this period, Hal Roach ended his distribution arrangement with the Path company,
instead releasing future products through newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM released its first
Our Gang comedy in September 1927. The move to MGM offered Roach larger budgets, and the chance to
have his films packaged with MGM features to the Loews Theatres chain.
Some of the shorts around this time, particularly Spook Spoofing (1928, one of only two three-
reelers in the Our Gang canon) contained extended scenes of the gang tormenting and teasing Farina,
scenes which helped spur the claims of racism which many other shorts did not warrant. These shorts
marked the departure of Jackie Condon, who had been with the group from the beginning of the
The sound era
Starting in 1928, Our Gang comedies were distributed with phonographic discs that contained
synchronized music-and-sound-effect tracks for the shorts. In spring 1929, the Roach sound stages
were converted for sound recording, and Our Gang made its "all-talking" debut in April 1929 with
the 25 minute Small Talk. It took a year for McGowan and the gang to fully adjust to talking
pictures, during which time they lost Joe, Jean and Harry, and added Norman "Chubby" Chaney,
Dorothy DeBorba, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Donald Haines and Jackie Cooper. Jackie proved to be the
personality the series had been missing since Mickey left, and he was featured prominently in three
1930/1931 Our Gang films: Teacher's Pet, School's Out, and Love Business. These three shorts
explored Jackie's crush on the new schoolteacher Miss Crabtree, played by June Marlowe. Jackie soon
won the lead role in Paramount's feature film Skippy, and Roach sold Jackie's contract to MGM in
1931. Other Our Gang members appearing in the early sound shorts included Buddy McDonald, Bobby
"Bonedust" Young, and Shirley Jean Rickert. Many also appeared in a group cameo appearance in the
all-star comedy short The Stolen Jools (1931).
Beginning with When the Wind Blows, background music scores were added to the soundtracks of most
of the Our Gang films. Initially, the music consisted of orchestral versions of then popular tunes.
Marvin Hatley had served as the music director of Hal Roach Studios since 1929, and RCA employee
Leroy Shield joined the company as a part-time musical director in mid 1930. Hatley and Shield's
jazz-influenced scores, first featured in Our Gang with 1930's Pups is Pups, became recognizable
trademarks of Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy, and the other Roach series and films. Another 1930 short,
Teacher's Pet marked the first use of the Our Gang theme song, "Good Old Days", composed by Leroy
Shield and featuring a notable saxophone solo. Shield and Hatley's scores would support Our Gang's
on-screen action regularly through 1934, after which series entries with background scores became
In 1930, Roach began production on The Boy Friends, a short-subject series which was essentially a
teenaged version of Our Gang. Featuring Our Gang alumni Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman among its
cast, The Boy Friends was produced by Roach for two years, with fifteen installments in
Jackie Cooper left Our Gang in early 1931 at the cusp of another major shift in the lineup, as
Farina, Chubby, and Mary Ann all departed a few months afterward. Our Gang entered another
transitional period, similar to that of the mid-1920s. Stymie, Wheezer, and Dorothy carried the
series during this period, aided by Sherwood Bailey and a few months later by Kendall "Breezy
Brisbane" McComas. Unlike the mid-20s period, McGowan was able to sustain the quality of the series
with the help of the several regular children and the Roach writing staff. Many of these shorts
include early appearances of Jerry Tucker and Wally Albright, who later became series
New Roach discovery George "Spanky" McFarland joined the gang late in 1931 at the age of three and,
excepting a brief hiatus during the summer of 1938, remained an Our Gang actor for the next eleven
years. At first appearing as the tag-along toddler of the group, and later finding an accomplice in
Scotty Beckett in 1934, Spanky quickly became Our Gang's biggest child star. He won parts in a
number of outside features, appeared in many of the now-numerous Our Gang product endorsements and
spin-off merchandise items, and popularized the expressions "Okey-dokey!" and "Okey-doke!"
Dickie Moore, a veteran child actor, joined in the middle of 1932, and remained with the series for
one year. Other members during these years included Mary Ann Jackson's brother Dickie Jackson, John
"Uh-huh" Collum, and Tommy Bond. Upon Dickie's departure in mid-1933, long-term Our Gang members
such as Wheezer (who had been with Our Gang since the late Path silents period) and Dorothy left
the series as well.
In late 1933, Robert McGowan, worn out from the stress of working on the children's comedies, left
the series and the Roach studio, going over to direct features at Paramount. With the large
turnover from the departures of Dickie, Wheezer, and Dorothy, McGowan's last two Our Gang comedies,
Bedtime Worries and Wild Poses, focused heavily on Spanky and his parents, played by Gay Seabrook
and Emerson Treacy. After a four-month hiatus in production, German-born Gus Meins assumed
directing duties starting with 1934's Hi'-Neighbor!. Gordon Douglas served as Meins's assistant
director, and Fred Newmeyer alternated directorial duties with Meins for a handful of shorts.
Meins's Our Gang shorts were less improvisational than McGowan's, and featured a heavier reliance
Scotty Beckett and Wally Albright joined the gang at the start of Meins's tenure as director, as
did Billie Thomas. Within a few months of joining the series, Thomas began playing the character of
Stymie's sister "Buckwheat" (even though Thomas was a male). Buckwheat was first portrayed by
Stymie's sister Carlena Beard for one short, and by Willie Mae Taylor in three others, before the
part became Thomas's. Also, semi-regular actors such as Jackie Lynn Taylor, Marianne Edwards, and
Leonard Kibrick, as the neighborhood bully, joined the series at this time. Tommy Bond and Wally
Albright left the gang in the middle of 1934; Jackie Lynn Taylor and Marriane Edwards would depart
Early in 1935, Carl Switzer and his brother Harold joined the gang after impressing Roach with an
impromptu performance at the studio commissary, the Our Gang Cafe, which was open to the public.
While Harold would eventually be relegated to the role of a background player, Carl, nicknamed
"Alfalfa," eventually became Scotty Beckett's replacement as Spanky's sidekick. Stymie left shortly
after, and the Buckwheat character morphed subtly into a male. The same year, Darla Hood and Eugene
"Porky" Lee also joined the gang, as Scotty Beckett departed for a career in features.
The final Roach years
Our Gang was hugely successful during the 1920s and the early 1930s. However, by 1934, many movie
theater owners were increasingly dropping two-reel (twenty minute) comedies like Our Gang and the
Laurel & Hardy series from their bills, and running double feature programs instead. The Laurel &
Hardy series was switched from film shorts to features exclusively in mid-1935. By 1936, Hal Roach
began debating plans to discontinue Our Gang until Louis B. Mayer, head of Roach's distributor MGM,
convinced Roach to keep the popular series in production. Roach agreed, and began producing
shorter, one-reel Our Gang comedies (ten-minutes in length instead of twenty). The first one-reel
Our Gang short, Bored of Education (1936), won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (One Reel)
in 1937. Bored of Education also marked the Our Gang directorial debut of former assistant director
As part of the arrangement with MGM to continue Our Gang, Roach got the clearance to produce an Our
Gang feature film, General Spanky, hoping that he could possibly move the series to features as he
had done with Laurel & Hardy. Directed by Gordon Douglas and Fred Newmeyer, General Spanky featured
Spanky, Buckwheat, and Alfalfa in a sentimental, Shirley Temple-esque story set during the Civil
War. The film focused more on its adult leads (Phillip Holmes and Rosina Lawrence) than the
children, and was a box office disappointment. No further Our Gang features were made.
After years of gradual cast changes, the troupe standardized in 1936 with the move to one-reel
shorts. Most casual fans of Our Gang are particularly familiar with the 1936-1939 incarnation of
the cast: Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, and Porky, with recurring characters such as
neighborhood bullies Butch and Woim and bookworm Waldo. Tommy Bond, an off-and-on member of the
gang since 1932, returned to the series as Butch beginning with the 1937 short Glove Taps. Sidney
Kibrick played Butch's crony, The Woim. Glove Taps also featured the first appearance of Darwood
Kaye as the bespectacled Waldo. In later shorts, both Butch and Waldo would become Alfalfa's main
rivals in his pursuit of Darla's affections. Other familiar situations in these mid-to-late 1930s
shorts include the "He-Man Woman Haters Club" from Hearts Are Thumps and Mail and Female (both
1937), the Laurel and Hardy-ish interaction between Alfalfa and Spanky, and the comic tag-along
team of Porky and Buckwheat.
Roach produced one last two-reel Our Gang short, a high-budget musical special entitled Our Gang
Follies of 1938, in 1937 as a parody of MGM's Broadway Melody of 1938. In Follies of 1938, Alfalfa,
who aspires to be an opera singer, falls asleep and dreams that his old pal Spanky has become the
rich owner of a swanky Broadway nightclub, where Darla and Buckwheat perform and make "hundreds and
thousands of dollars."
As the profit margins continued to decline due to double features, Roach could no longer afford to
continue producing Our Gang, and MGM, not wanting the series discontinued, agreed to take over
production. On May 31, 1938, Roach sold MGM the Our Gang unit, including the rights to the name and
the contracts for the actors and writers, for $25,000. After delivering the Laurel & Hardy feature
Block-Heads, Roach ended his distribution contract with MGM as well, moving to United Artists and
leaving the short subjects business. The final Roach-produced short in the Our Gang series, Hide
and Shriek, was also Roach's final short subject production.
The MGM era
The MGM-produced Our Gang shorts were not as well-received as the Roach-produced shorts had been,
due to both MGM's inexperience with the brand of slapstick comedy Our Gang was famous for and MGM's
insistence on keeping Alfalfa, Spanky, and Buckwheat in the series until they were in their early
teens. On loan from the Roach studio, a frustrated Gordon Douglas completed only two Our Gang
shorts for MGM before returning to his home studio. In replacing him, MGM began using Our Gang as a
training ground for future feature directors. George Sidney, Edward Cahn, and Cy Endfield all
worked on Our Gang before moving on to features; another director, Herbert Glazer, remained a
second-unit director outside of his work on the series. Nearly all of the 52 MGM-produced Our Gangs
were written by former Roach director Hal Law and former junior director Robert A. McGowan (also
known as Anthony Mack, nephew of the series' main director back at Roach, Robert F. McGowan).
Robert A. McGowan was credited for these shorts as "Robert McGowan"; as a result, moviegoers have
been confused for decades about whether this Robert McGowan and the senior director of the same
name back at Roach were two separate people or not.
The Our Gang films produced by MGM are considered by many film historians, and even the Our Gang
children themselves, to be lesser films than the Roach entries. The children's performances are
often stilted, with the fully scripted dialogue now being recited stiffly instead of spoken
naturally. The stories were more heavy-handed, with adult situations driving the action, and the
films usually incorporated a moral, a civics lesson, or a patriotic theme.
Porky was replaced in 1939 by Mickey Gubitosi, later better known by the stage name of Robert
Blake. Butch, Waldo, and Alfalfa all left the series in 1940, and Billy "Froggy" Laughlin (with his
Popeye-esque trick voice) and Janet Burston were added to the cast. By the end of 1941, Darla had
also departed from the series, and Spanky followed her within a year. Buckwheat remained in the
cast until the end of the series as the only holdover from the Roach era.
Exhibitors noticed the drop in quality, and often complained that the series was slipping. When six
of the 13 shorts released between 1942 and 1943 sustained losses rather than turning profits, MGM
discontinued Our Gang, releasing the final short, Dancing Romeo, on April 29, 1944.
Since 1937, Our Gang had been featured as a licensed comic strip in the UK comic The Dandy, drawn
by Dudley D. Watkins. Starting in 1942, MGM licensed Our Gang to Dell Comics for the publication of
Our Gang Comics, featuring the gang, Barney Bear, and Tom and Jerry. The strips in The Dandy ended
three years after the demise of the Our Gang shorts, in 1947. Our Gang Comics outlasted the series
by five years, finally changing its name to Tom and Jerry Comics in 1949. In 2006, Fantagraphics
Books began issuing a series of volumes reprinting the Our Gang stories, most of which were written
and drawn by Pogo creator Walt Kelly.
Later years and The Little Rascals revival
The Little Rascals television package
When Hal Roach sold Our Gang to MGM, he had retained the option to buy back the rights to the Our
Gang trademark, provided he did not produce any more children's comedies in the Our Gang vein. In
the mid-1940s, he decided that he wanted to create a new film property in the Our Gang mold, and
forfeited his right to buy back the Our Gang name in order to produce two Cinecolor featurettes,
Curley and Who Killed Doc Robbin. Neither film was critically or financially successful, and Roach
instead turned his plans toward re-releasing the original Our Gang comedies.
In 1949, MGM sold Hal Roach the rights to the 1927-1938 Our Gang silent and talking shorts. MGM
retained the rights to use the Our Gang name, the 52 Our Gang films it produced, and the rights to
the feature General Spanky. As per the terms of the sale, Roach was required to remove the MGM Lion
studio logo and all instances of the names or logos "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer", "Loews Incorporated",
and Our Gang from the reissued film prints. Using a modified version of the series' original name,
Roach packaged the 80 sound Our Gang shorts as The Little Rascals. Monogram Pictures and its
successor, Allied Artists, reissued the films to theaters beginning in 1951. Allied Artists'
television department, Interstate Television, syndicated the films to TV in 1955.
Under its new name, The Little Rascals enjoyed renewed popularity on television, and new Little
Rascals comic books, toys, and other licensed merchandise was made available for purchase. Seeing
the potential of the property, MGM began distributing its own Our Gang shorts to television in
1956, and as a result, the two separate packages of Our Gang films competed with each other in
syndication for three decades. Some stations bought both packages and played them alongside each
other under the Little Rascals show banner.
The television rights for the original silent Path Our Gang comedies were sold to National Telepix
and other distributors, who distributed the films under titles such as The Mischief Makers and
Those Lovable Scallawags with Their Gangs.
King World's acquisition and edits
In the 1960s a then-new distributor named King World Entertainment (now CBS Television
Distribution) returned the films to television, and the success of The Little Rascals paved the way
for King World to become one of the biggest television syndicators in the world.
In 1971, because of controversy over some of the racial humor in the shorts, as well as other
content deemed to be in bad taste, King World made significant edits to its Little Rascals TV
prints. Many of the series entries were trimmed by two to four minutes, while several others (among
them Spanky, Bargain Day, The Pinch Singer and Mush and Milk) were cut down to nearly half of their
At the same time, eight Little Rascals shorts were removed from the King World television package
altogether. Lazy Days, Moan & Groan, Inc., the Stepin Fetchit-guest-starred A Tough Winter, Little
Daddy, A Lad an' a Lamp, The Kid From Borneo, and Little Sinner were all deleted from the
syndication package because of perceived racism, while Big Ears was deleted for dealing with the
subject of divorce. The early talkie Railroadin' was never part of the television package because
its sound tracks (recorded on phonographic records) could not be found and were considered
In the early 2000s, the 71 films in the King World package were re-edited, reinstating many (though
not all) of the edits made in 1971 and the original Our Gang title cards. These new television
prints made their debut on the American Movie Classics cable network in 2001.
New Little Rascals productions
In 1977, Norman Lear tried to revive the Rascals franchise, taping three pilot episodes of the The
Little Rascals. The pilots were not bought, but they were notable for giving an early start to Gary
1979 brought The Little Rascals Christmas Special, an animated holiday special produced by
Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, written by Romeo Muller and featuring voice work from Darla Hood (who died
before the special aired) and Matthew "Stymie" Beard. Hanna-Barbera brought the animated gang back
from 1982 to 1984 in a series of Little Rascals television cartoons for ABC Saturday Mornings. Many
producers, including Our Gang alumnus Jackie Cooper, made pilots for new Our Gang TV shows, but
none of them ever went into production.
In 1994, Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures released The Little Rascals, a feature film
based upon the series and featuring interpretations of classic Our Gang shorts, including Hearts
are Thumps, Rushin' Ballet, and Hi'-Neighbor! The film, directed by Penelope Spheeris, starred
Travis Tedford as Spanky, Bug Hall as Alfalfa, and Ross Bagley as Buckwheat; and featured cameos by
the Olsen twins, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks, Reba McEntire, Daryl Hannah, Donald Trump, and Raven
-Symon. The Little Rascals was a moderate success for Universal, bringing in $51,764,950 at the
box office. Critics and fans alike were quick to note that no surviving members of the original Our
Gang appeared in the film.
Legacy and influence
The characters in this series became well-known cultural icons, and could often be identified
solely by their first names. The characters of Alfalfa, Spanky, Buckwheat, Darla, and Froggy were
especially well-known. Like many child actors, the Our Gang children were subsequently typecast and
had trouble outgrowing their Our Gang images.
Several Our Gang alumni, among them Carl Switzer, Scotty Beckett, Norman Chaney, Billy Laughlin,
and Bobby Hutchins, met with untimely deaths before the age of forty. This led to rumors that there
was an Our Gang/Little Rascals "curse", a rumor popularized by a 2002 E! True Hollywood Story
documentary entitled The Curse of the Little Rascals. The Snopes.com website debunks the rumor that
there is an Our Gang curse, stating that there was no evidence of a pattern of unusual deaths when
taking all of the major Our Gang stars into account, despite the tragic deaths of a select
The children's work in the series went largely unrewarded in later years, although Spanky McFarland
received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame posthumously in 1994. Neither he nor any of the other
Our Gang children ever got any residuals or royalties from reruns of the shorts or licensed
products with their likenesses. The only remittances they received were their weekly salaries
during their time in the gang, which ranged from $40 a week for newcomers to $200 or more a week
for stars like Farina, Spanky, and Alfalfa.
One notable exception is Jackie Cooper, who was later nominated for an Academy Award and had a full
career as an adult actor. Cooper is best known today for portraying Perry White in the Superman
movies starring Christopher Reeve, as well as for directing episodes of TV series such as M*A*S*H
The 1930 Our Gang short Pups is Pups was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States
Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004.
Imitators, followers, and frauds
Due to the popularity of Our Gang, a number of imitation kid comedy short film series were created
by competing studios. Among the most notable of these are The Kiddie Troupers, featuring future
comedian Eddie Bracken; Baby Burlesks, featuring Shirley Temple; the Buster Brown comedies (from
which Our Gang received Pete the Pup and director Gus Meins); and Our Gang's most successful
competitor, the Toonerville Trolley-based Mickey McGuire series starring Mickey Rooney. Some less
notable imitations series include The McDougall Alley Gang (Bray Productions, 1927-1928), The Us
Bunch and Our Kids.
After its original run was over, Our Gang continued to inspire works in various media focusing on
children. These include, but are not limited to, films such as The Bad News Bears, The Goonies and
In later years, a large number of adults falsely claimed to have been members of Our Gang. A long
list of people, including persons famous in other capacities such as Nanette Fabray, Eddie Bracken,
and gossip columnist Joyce Haber have all claimed to be or have been publicly called former Our
Gang children. Bracken's official biography was once altered to state that he appeared in Our Gang
instead of The Kiddie Troupers, although he himself had no knowledge of the change. There are many
other persons who have falsely claimed to have been Our Gang characters such as Spanky, Alfalfa,
Froggy, and often other characters who never existed.
Among the most notable Our Gang impostors is Jack Bothwell, who claimed to have portrayed a
character named "Freckles", and went so far as to appear on the game show To Tell The Truth in the
fall of 1957 perpetuating this fraud. In 2008, a Darla Hood impostor, Mollie Barron, passed away
claiming to be one of the "Darla" actresses cast in the Our Gang series. Her AP obituary reported
her as an Our Gang cast member. Another is Bill English, a grocery store employee who appeared on
the October 5, 1990, episode of the ABC investigative television newsmagazine 20/20 claiming to
have been Buckwheat. Following the broadcast, Spanky McFarland informed the media of the truth, and
in December, William Thomas, Jr., the son of Billie Thomas, the actual actor who played Buckwheat,
filed a lawsuit against ABC for negligence.
Another child actor of the era who claimed to have portrayed a character named "Freckles" in Our
Gang was Wesley Barry. In the 1979 book Behind Japanese Lines: With the OSS in Burma, author
Richard Dunlop, a former OSS member, made this statement about then-OSS member Wes "Berry." Barry
was in fact a child actor of the time who acted in films similar to the 'Our Gang shorts, and was
particularly known for his freckles. While it does appear likely that Barry did serve in the OSS in
Burma in 1944, there is no evidence that he appeared in the Our Gang movies apart from this
Persons and entities named after Our Gang
A number of other groups, companies, and entities have been inspired by or named after Our Gang.
The folk-rock group Spanky and Our Gang was named in honor of the troupe, but had no other
connection with it. In addition, there are a number of (unauthorized) Little Rascals and Our Gang
restaurants and day care centers in various locations throughout the United States. Ren and Stimpy,
the animated stars of Nickelodeon's The Ren and Stimpy Show, were first created as supporting
characters on a proposed cartoon show called Your Gang about a group of children.
Our Gang children, pets, and personnel
The following is a listing of the best-known child actors in the Our Gang comedies. They are
grouped by the era during which they joined the gang. Persons marked with an asterisk (*) are still
living. The surviving members are Dickie Moore, Jackie Cooper, Dorothy DeBorba, Marianne Edwards,
Jean Darling, Mildred Kornman, Robert Blake, Jerry Tucker, Sidney Kibrick and Jackie Lynn
Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison (1922-1924)
Mickey Daniels (1922-1926)
Mary Kornman (1922-1926)
Jackie Condon (1922-1928)
Allen "Farina" Hoskins (1922-1931)
Joe Cobb (1922-1929)
Jay R. Smith (1926-1929)
Jean Darling (1926-1929)
Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins (1926-1933)
Mary Ann Jackson (1927-1931)
Pete the Pup (1930-1938)
Norman "Chubby" Chaney (1929-1931)
Jackie Cooper (1929-1931)
Shirley Jean Rickert (1931)
Dorothy DeBorba (1930-1933)
Matthew "Stymie" Beard (1930-1935)
George "Spanky" McFarland (1932-1942)
Tommy Bond (1932-1934 as Tommy, 1937-1940 as "Butch")
Scotty Beckett (1934-1935)
Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas (1934-1944)
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (1935-1940)
Darla Hood (1935-1941)
Eugene "Porky" Lee (1935-1939)
Jerry Tucker (1931-1938)
Mickey Gubitosi (Robert Blake) (1939-1944)
Billy "Froggy" Laughlin (1940-1944)
Janet Burston (1940-1944)
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers.