That Time When A Fake Buckwheat From Little Rascals Fooled The Media

A carefully-curated news program has little room for error. Set on a national scale, the reporting runs the risk of giving false or misleading information to the viewers should any misinformation be presented as truth. As it stands, the very integrity of any news media is based on truthful reporting that presents all the pertinent facts while simultaneously eliminating any bias (per Belmont University). While no outlet is perfect, the public does seem to hold network news to a higher standard. So when a news show like ABC's "20/20" makes a blunder, you can imagine the amount of egg that's left on its proverbial face.

In 1990, "20/20" reported an exclusive story about a former child actor with a familiar name (per AP News). That actor was William "Billy" Thomas, whose claim to fame was co-starring as the character Buckwheat in nearly 100 "Our Gang" film shorts throughout the 1930s and 1940s (per IMDb). The feature story on the prime-time news show reported that 56-year-old Thomas lived in Tempe, Ariz., under the name Bill English. He did not have much financial gain from his years as a child actor, as there were no unions or laws at the time to protect him. He found himself working a variety of jobs before becoming what "20/20" reported was the "most popular bagger for miles around" at Smitty's grocery store. 

It was a touching update on a beloved child actor. The only problem was that William "Billy" Thomas had been dead for a decade.

ABC was forced to apologize for a serious error in reporting

At the end of the segment, "20/20" co-hosts Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters marveled about what a nice man English had grown into and joked that many of the youth of that time were introduced to the iconic Buckwheat character from Eddie Murphy's caricature of him on the hit show "Saturday Night Live." 

Shortly after the segment aired, it was brought to the attention of the news media that the real Buckwheat died in late 1980 at the age of 49 from what were apparent natural causes (per UPI). Among those who were furious about the story were Thomas' son, William Thomas, Jr., and George "Spanky" McFarland, who co-starred in the "Our Gang" film shorts alongside the real Buckwheat (per the Associated Press).

Within days of Thomas' obituary being verified and English denounced as a fraud, the Los Angeles Times reported that the producer responsible for the disastrous story, Lynn Murray, resigned from the network. The following Friday, Downs issued a formal apology to viewers and loved ones of the real Buckwheat, echoing an official statement "20/20's" spokeswoman made before the show.

The revelation that the real Buckwheat was long dead should have put the issue to rest. The obituary and statements from McFarland and the actor's son were incontrovertible proof that English was a fraud, and that ABC made a grave error. But that's when things got a little more interesting.

English double downs

English was approached by "20/20" after one of his "fans" in Tempe wrote to the network and suggested they do a story on the elderly grocery bagger. The Associated Press, via The Bulletin, reports that English was telling people for 30 years that he was Buckwheat, with no one in Tempe being the wiser. And even after Hugh Downs was forced to eat crow on national TV in a sincere apology about the story segment he hosted, English double-downed on his claim to be Buckwheat.

On an episode of "A Current Affair," English was interviewed via satellite side-by-side with McFarland. The former "Our Gang" actor told the outlet's host that he was "flabbergasted" by English's claims. When questioned about the evidence that showed that the actor who played Buckwheat was dead, English insisted that he was the real deal. He gave long-winded, rambling answers to the series of questions he was confronted with, truly unable to justify either his claims or reasons why he would lie about his identity.

The real Buckwheat's son, William Thomas, Jr., filed a lawsuit in 1991 against ABC for emotional damages stemming from the "20/20" story (per the Associated Press, via The Bulletin). As for the man who spent decades falsely claiming to be one of the most beloved "Our Gang" cast members? The Tampa Bay Times reports that English died in late 1994 of heart failure, never publicly admitting that he wasn't actually Buckwheat.