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Richard Thomas Interview: Television Icon on His Career and the Long-Lasting Impact of "The Waltons"

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Image attributed to Lia Chang

Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is best known for his leading role as John Walton Jr. (John-Boy) in the television series The Waltons which was inspired by writer, producer Earl Hamner Jr.’s own childhood and lasted nine seasons on CBS. The pilot aired as a television movie entitled The Homecoming: A Christmas Story that was broadcast on December 19, 1971.

During his career, Thomas won an Emmy and two Golden Globe awards among several nominations. His other TV appearances include A Doll’s House, The Edge of Night, As the World Turns, Marcus Welby, M.D., Bonanza, Medical Center, Night Gallery, Roots: The Next Generations, Promised Land, Touched by an Angel, The Practice, Law & Order, Rizzoli & Isles and The Good Wife.

“I think shows are always a product of their time in which they’re produced. The culture in any particular moment make it what it is. Shows are either forgotten or they become kind of a nostalgic thing whether they were good or not. Some shows aren’t very good, and others pack a nostalgic punch, you know? Then you have shows that are pretty much classic TV shows, among which I would list The Waltons. Those have a permanent value because they’re good. Even though they’re dated, everything has a flavor of the period in which it was done. Nevertheless, they maintain a kind of freshness because of their quality.”

Thomas has also made numerous Broadway and stage appearances and can currently be seen in the FX Cold War drama The Americans which begins a third season January 28, 2015. The actor and his wife have six children from previous marriages and one son together.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Richard, I just saw you in an episode of The Good Wife! A very interesting role and storyline.

Richard Thomas: Very interesting, yes. I forgot to ask when it was going to be on, and people have been telling me they’ve seen it, so I missed it. That was the first time I had done that show.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you currently shooting The Americans?

Richard Thomas: We are shooting season three, yes. I believe it premieres around the end of January. It’s a very good show on FX about soviet spies in America in the early 80s. I play Agent Frank Gaad, the head of the FBI counter terrorist office. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are KGB agents posing as an American couple that live in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s coming up in the new season?

Richard Thomas: They don’t tell us what’s coming up in the series. They just keep it quiet, and we’re not supposed to say anything anyway about what’s happening because we don’t want to give anything away. If I told you, I’d have to kill you (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) I’ve had experience with actors not being able to give spoilers (laughs). What kind of a year has it been for you?

Richard Thomas: We finished shooting the second season of The Americans in March, and I went to the Arena Stage in Washington where we did a new play called Camp David, a new play by Lawrence Wright. I played Jimmy Carter in that. Lawrence Wright, who wrote the play, has a new book on the Times list called Thirteen Days in September about Camp David. We did that play, and then I went out to the Globe, a Shakespeare Theatre in California, to do Othello for my friend Barry Edelstein. That took me to August, and I came home and did The Good Wife and hung out waiting for The Americans to start.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You basically began your career in theatre, Richard?

Richard Thomas: Yeah, the very beginning, but shortly within a year or so of starting, I was doing television here in New York. In the late 50s, it was live TV, and during that first golden age, so I was always working here. It was mostly in New York in the 50s before the big film shows started out west. Then when that happened, I have a long list of television guest starring roles as a kid and all that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your parents were dancers and owned the New York City Ballet, so why did you want to become an actor?

Richard Thomas: I was a small boy and had the opportunity to try it in the late 50s, and I loved it. That’s just what I wanted to do. It was an early beginning for me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it a blessing and a curse to still be known all around the world as John-Boy?

Richard Thomas: Oh no. It’s just a blessing. It’s wonderful. There are challenges with every way of life, but if you’re an actor, and you’re lucky enough to create a role that has that kind of an impact, then it’s a good day’s work.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You always looked so comfortable in the episodes where you are riding a mule.

Richard Thomas: Yeah, well, I grew up riding them. My dad was from eastern Kentucky, and that’s where I spent all my childhood summers on my grandfather’s farm, so we always had mules. We had walking horses. My dad had American Saddlebred horses for years, so I grew up riding. I didn’t do any stunts myself on the show, but riding was always a pleasure.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve interviewed Michael Learned and Mary McDonough who are both very sweet people.

Richard Thomas: Very.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael discussed leaving the show and said that the show had “grit” to it in the beginning that it lost toward the end. Is that how you felt when you left?

Richard Thomas: No. I never intended to do more than the first five years. When I left in year five, I didn’t think the show had lost much. I thought it was still going strong and doing really well. I don’t know much about what happened after I left, but I was very happy in the show. I loved the episodes and thought the show was still very strong in the fifth season. I came back for a couple of episodes in the sixth season for visits and all that, and that was fun, too.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael also said that you were quite a cutup on the set.

Richard Thomas: (laughs) Will (Geer) was very funny, too. Another person who was very funny was John Ritter. Everybody was funny. We laughed a lot on that show. We had a lot of laughs and still do whenever we get together. As these things go, it was a very intense job working nine months, five days a week, fourteen hours a day with people and being emotional because you’re acting.

We formed very strong bonds, and we had a very good time by and large. No show is without its moments of conflicts, but ours were always workable, and everybody really loved each other very much. I was most definitely a cutup at twenty-one years old.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What did Ralph Waite mean to you?

Richard Thomas: Ralph was a wonderful actor. I had actually worked with him a few years prior when I was a kid in a movie. Ralph’s character doesn’t actually appear in the final version, but I did a film called Last Summer in 1969 for Frank Perry, and Ralph played my dad in that. The scene between us didn’t actually make it in, but I thought then he was a wonderful actor. I was very fond of Ralph. He was a scrupulously honest person. He had impeccable integrity as an actor, so even though I was a very experienced twenty something actor because I’d been doing it for many years, I still looked to my seniors for examples.

Ralph was unfailingly honest and demanding as an actor. I mean “demanding” in a good way, demanding that things be clear and well done. He was a sweet, affectionate, funny man, too. I loved Ralph a lot. We all did. He was a great progressive activist and a great contributor to his community. Ralph was a really special guy, and I had a lot of admiration for him as well as a lot of love.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think The Waltons would be just as successful if it had just begun its first season in 2014?

Richard Thomas: No. I think shows are always a product of their time in which they’re produced. The culture in any particular moment make it what it is. Shows are either forgotten or they become kind of a nostalgic thing whether they were good or not. Some shows aren’t very good, and others pack a nostalgic punch, you know? Then you have shows that are pretty much classic TV shows, among which I would list The Waltons. Those have a permanent value because they’re good. Even though they’re dated, everything has a flavor of the period in which it was done. Nevertheless, they maintain a kind of freshness because of their quality.

I guess you’d have to say that, in answer to the question, would it still be a success? It’s on the air all the time, so it obviously still has an appeal because sometimes several networks run it. It still runs in different countries around the world, so it has maintained its appeal. That’s not surprising. I’m not sure it’s a show that anybody would make right now because there’s a different sensibility, but that’s okay because sensibilities change. But people who haven’t seen it in a long time watch it, and they’re very taken with it. They get the feeling of the show. They get what the show’s about because it’s basically about family and about people living together, depending on each other and going through life together as a family, and that has perennial appeal. The scripts were good, and the acting was good, and it had merit, so it still holds.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I agree. I think another reason why it has held up so well is because the show depicted many social issues like racism, sexism and poverty as well as religion and spirituality, which was groundbreaking in the 1970s.

Richard Thomas: It was groundbreaking for a couple of reasons. There hadn’t really been an hour drama about a family. There had been westerns and things like that, but there hadn’t really been an hour drama just about the story of a family. That was new. Number two, when the show went on the air in ’72, the Vietnam War was almost over but not yet, and there was Watergate. The country was in a terrible state of self-awareness. We had to take a look at what was going on with our country.

There was a lot of political tension that crossed the generations, and The Waltons was a show that brought people back together again for that hour. There was no cynicism in the show. There was a lot of drama and conflict, of course, which was appropriate, but it was a safe haven in the middle of a most tumultuous period. That was a very unique thing about the show. Also in the terms of the character of John-Boy, probably for the first time in television, you had a central male character who was not an action figure. He was more of a “feeling” character, more aesthetic, a young man with a more delicate sensibility which got away from the classic “Type A” male TV personality, and that was a very big difference in terms of role types.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very true. How has the ever-changing landscape of television affected family programming?

Richard Thomas: There are a lot more shows since the rise of cable and more licenses in shows so that they’re a lot edgier. A lot more can be said and shown and done on television than in the early 70s, so obviously there are more adults viewing. I consider The Waltons to be adult viewing, but it wasn’t the adult viewing where you had to keep your kids out of the room.

Television was pretty much family oriented in terms of everybody sitting around the TV together until probably the 90s. There was a lot of strong material, and that’s good. There should be. The constraints of the broadcasting practices is good in that you can have a curve which will allow shows to be made that the whole family can watch, but it also is potentially a constraint on creativity, and there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be shows on the air which are for more mature audiences.

In that sense, I’d have to say that if we floated a little bit in that direction, one would hope there would be more family shows down the line, but you see, even family shows are more sophisticated in terms of … they’re more worldly, I would say. Even family shows are worldlier because kids are worldlier. Kids are more protected than they were in the 50s, 60s and 70s. It has been a progressive change. They know more, they see more, they say more, they do more, so even programming which includes young people is edgier than it was years ago.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Stephen Collins appeared in a 1975 Waltons episode “The Abdication.” Even if he is cleared of alleged molestation charges, can an actor’s career recover from that kind of controversy?

Richard Thomas: I don’t know, but this is a very forgiving society. There’s no telling. There are a lot of people still working, still popular, who have done things you would’ve thought, “Well, that’s the end of him.” Don’t ever underestimate the second, third and fourth acts of people in show business. I would only say this about Stephen. When I worked with him years ago, I loved him. I thought he was super intelligent and super nice. We had a lot to talk about. He’s a literary guy. We talked books. We talked philosophy. We had many conversations, and I always thought he was a terrific guy.

I’m sorry for all that. We’ll see how it plays out, but as far as the working relationship was concerned, Stephen was very professional and very talented. I hope it’s not true, but who knows. There was a TV series in England, a hilariously brilliant one called Help which was a two character series. One of the actors played a therapist, and it turned out that he got raided for child pornography. He went to jail, and they pulled that show off the air. I’d say that’s at the extreme end of the spectrum in terms of overcoming that kind of thing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have seven children, Richard?

Richard Thomas: Yes I do. I have seven children between my wife, Georgiana, and myself. I have four from my first marriage. She had two. We put them together to make six, and then she and I had one who is now eighteen years old.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are any of them interested in show business?

Richard Thomas: Our youngest daughter is an aspiring actress, and our oldest daughter is a postproduction producer.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any upcoming projects you wish to discuss?

Richard Thomas: I’m having a wonderful time doing The Americans. It’s the kind of part I haven’t played before, and that that is an unusual part for me. I love doing theatre. We’re all hoping that Camp David will find a theatre in New York either this season or early next season, so we can do that wonderful play in New York City.

Right now I’m helping my youngest get through his college application process. My fondest wish right now is that he goes where he wants to go and gets this behind him because it seems like the worst six months of your life, and six months later, you can’t even remember it (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know what you mean (laughs). Do you have any information on when the documentary, Earl Hamner Storyteller, will be available?

Richard Thomas: I haven’t seen it. All I know is that Ray Castro, who is producing it, came to interview me when I was doing some Shakespeare in California in the summer. He and Mike McGreevey and I had a long interview about Earl. I was happy to do it because I adore him and owe him so much. He’s a wonderful man as well as having made an irreplaceable contribution to television history as well as being a terrific writer. Anytime I can do anything to express my love and gratitude for Earl, I’ll be the first to do it, but I haven’t seen any of the documentary yet.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How is Earl’s health?

Richard Thomas: I think Earl’s fragile. He’s going through a lot, but he’s a very strong guy. He’s been around a long time, and he knows how to hunker down and get through it. I just always keep a good thought for him.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought of writing your own memoir about your time on The Waltons?

Richard Thomas: No. If I ever write a book of any kind, it’ll probably be more comprehensive than just focusing on The Waltons. It was a magic time for me, a very special time, and I have it as a memory, a very nostalgic and wonderful memory. I like having it as a memory that way, and I don’t have the best memory in the world (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you manage to take John-Boy’s eyeglasses with you when you left the show?

Richard Thomas: (laughs) Well, I have my own glasses. In the early years, they were prop glasses, and then I got a pair made that fit me. You know, I got my suspenders and my overalls in a trunk somewhere.

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