A Buckwheat Wannabe Lands 20/20 on the Griddle

updated 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When it comes to self-delusion, Americans appear to have lowered their sights. Folks with overactive imaginations used to claim to be Napoleon or Elvis or Robert E. Lee. Now, it seems, any star at all will suffice. Take Our Gang's Buckwheat—please. ABC News wishes you would. Going into last week, the network couldn't tell Buckwheat from baloney.

The embarrassment began Oct. 5, when the "Whatever Happened To?" segment of 20/20 featured Bill English, 56, a Tempe, Ariz., grocery bagger who said he had played Buckwheat, a child star in some 89 of the Our Gang comedies, which were filmed between 1922 and 1944, hit TV under the title The Little Rascals in the '50s and now rent briskly on video. Problem is, Buckwheat's name was Bill Thomas. English had an explanation: He claimed that he had changed his last name when his mother remarried.

Watching 20/20 at his Fort Worth home, former Our Gang member George "Spanky" McFarland, 62, was flabbergasted. He called ABC, insisting English was a ringer. "I knew Billy Thomas was dead," says McFarland. Critic Leonard Maltin, co-author of Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals, concurred, pointing out that Thomas, a film-lab technician in adult life, died of a heart attack in 1980 at age 49. Following the 20/20 episode, Maltin presented a documentary clip on Entertainment Tonight of the adult Thomas. "There are impostors out there who claim to be Darla, Spanky, Freckles and Froggy. They are all phonies," he said. "This story is so easy to check."

So why didn't ABC check it? The network isn't saying, though a spokesperson concedes that "there was a lapse, an error...whatever the word would be." The 20/20 producer responsible for the segment has resigned, and an apology was scheduled. Meantime a bewildered English, who was brought to 20/20's attention by his landlady, is sticking to his story: "The producer said I was Buckwheat," he says. "I've always been Buckwheat."

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