’20/20′ GAFFE ISN’T O-TAY WITH SPANKY

Whenever I get a spare moment, I try to think deep and meaningful thoughts, such as what is life, who invented the split pea, and, of course, whatever happened to Buckwheat?

I thought I had the answer to the last one recently, when the ABC-TV show
“20/20,” aired a segment claiming to have found Buckwheat, a former star of the Little Rascals comedies. According to the show, Buckwheat was working as a grocery bagger in Tempe, Ariz.

Naturally, “20/20” went to interview him. Buckwheat, whose real name was Billy Thomas, said he had changed his name to Bill English and had stopped signing autographs because it “interfered with my work.” I guess bagging is tougher than it looks.

Now, at first, this story struck me as something you’d see in the National Enquirer. “BUCKWHEAT FOUND AT STOP-N-SHOP, SAYS TOMATOES ARE O-TAY!”

But hey, I’m the suspicious type. And since “20/20” is hosted by Hugh Downs, who used to host “Concentration,” a very serious show where two people try to guess the secret of a giant 30-foot puzzle, and Barbara Walters, who was last seen batting her eyelashes at Warren Beatty and saying, “You’re sensitive, aw-went you?”, well, you figure they must be telling the truth.

I mean, they research these things, right? You could look it up

As it turns out, the man “20/20” interviewed — the man to whom it devoted a whole segment on national television — was not the real Buckwheat. He was an impostor. A fake. The real Buckwheat would have stood up and said so, except for one thing: He’s dead. He died 10 years ago, of a heart attack.

Now. Call me a workaholic. But this seems like the kind of thing you might discover in your research, no? There are books written on the Our Gang crew, and the authors could have told you the bad news about Buckwheat — and Alfalfa and Froggy, if you wanted.

Also, there is a company called Buckwheat Enterprises, in LA, operated by Buckwheat’s real son, William Thomas Jr. I’m sure he would have provided information about his father, and maybe a few posters, too.

But alas, “20/20,” which got the grocery bagger story in a letter from a viewer — and we all know how those letters can be trusted, especially the ones written in crayon — well, old “20/20” laid an egg. Hugh Downs had to apologize on Friday’s show. The producer has reportedly resigned, so I guess his next project, “Life On Mars,” will be scrapped, too.

To be honest, a TV show making a boo-boo such as this doesn’t really surprise me. Many TV programs — particularly talk shows — are in such a hurry to get high ratings they are often shoddy on research.

What surprised me was that anyone would pretend to be Buckwheat in the first place. Especially if all it got him was a job in a grocery store. So I called George “Spanky” McFarland, another ex-Little Rascal, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas. McFarland, 62, is pretty easy to find, except, obviously, to the people at “20/20.”

“That guy didn’t even look like Buckwheat,” he said. “These imitators are all over. They pretend to be Buckwheat, or Darla, or me. One fellow in LA said he was me and tried to become a movie producer. He was renting equipment and everything. I opened my mailbox one day and I was getting his bills.

“Another time there was this woman in Florida who said she was me. And people believed her. I mean, they could look at her and see she was a girl.” Remember Porky?

Spanky is pretty ticked off over this whole Buckwheat mess. He’s also kind of mad at “Saturday Night Live,” which, in the early ’80s, had Eddie Murphy doing a regular spoof on Buckwheat, prancing around the stage saying “O-tay!”

“Buckwheat never said ‘O-tay,’ ” Spanky said.

“He what?”

“He never said ‘O-tay.’ That was Porky.”

“How could so many people be wrong?”

“They stuck a phony Buckwheat on network TV, didn’t they?”

Good point.

Anyhow, Spanky said he was glad “20/20” apologized. He also said Porky and Butch are still alive, in case you see any more reports.

All of which reminds me of that “Saturday Night Live” skit in which they mocked (ironically) ABC’s “Nightline,” in a report claiming “Buckwheat has been shot!” In the skit, the “murderer” is Alfalfa. He was mad because Buckwheat put a frog down his pants in grade school. But in the end, Buckwheat comes back to life. Why? Because Alfalfa put blanks in the gun!

Hmm. Maybe there’s something to this. And I think we should investigate. It may sound a little farfetched, but then again:

It’s not as farfetched as “20/20.”

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