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Turner Classic Movies
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Thomas, Richard - Interview
Written by Diana Saenger   

richard_thomas_-_john_boy.jpgRichard Earl Thomas, born in New York City, NY, June 13, 1951, stared acting at age of seven. The son of Richard and Barbara Thomas, who were both dancers with the New York City Ballet and were owners of the New York School of Ballet, he was destined to be an actor. His first role was his Broadway debut in Sunrise at Campobello (1958) as John Roosevelt, son of future U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From the time that curtain went down, Thomas went on to make more than 90 film and TV appearances as of 2009 as well as many roles on the theatrical stage.  Among all of his esteemed work, Thomas is best know and remembered for his role as John Boy in The Walton's TV series that ran from 1972 to 1981.

walton_family_bw240.jpgThe show was set during the 1930s and €˜40s, during the Great Depression, going through to World War II. The Waltons lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and each episode about their lives unfolds through the eyes of John Boy, the oldest son of John (Ralph Waite) and Olivia Walton (Michael Learned), who has dreams of college and becoming a writer. Other siblings were played by David H. Harper, Eric Scott, Mary Beth Donough, Jon Walmsley and Kami Cotler. Will Geer played Grandpa Walton and Ellen Corby played Grandma Walton.

richard_thomas_bw250.jpgThomas, who left the series after the fifth season, also directed five episodes. He won a 1973 Enemy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Drama Series - Continuing) and was nominated again in 1974 for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He was nominated in 1974 and 75 for Golden Globes for the series for Best TV Actor - Drama.

Classic fans will be excited to learn Thomas most graciously agreed to an interview to catch up on his life and find out what being on the Waltons was like.

Q. You started acting at the age of seven. What about that experience made you want acting as a career?

Richard T: I was born in theater. My parents were ballet dancers and I was raised backstage. The theatre was a natural place for me. It was an extension of growing up, and I wanted to be an actor.

Q. Did your parents encourage this?

Richard T: They did. I studied ballot until I was about 14; not professionally but it was a terrific discipline for a young actor.

Q. Did you ever realize how big the Walton series would be when you signed on?

Richard T: No. None of us did. The Homecoming, A Christmas Story was not intended as a pilot, just a one- off Christmas special. Then it was decided to make it into a series. We knew it was going to be good because we had a good cast and the scripts were beautifully written. But we didn't know if it would be successful. It was unlike anything on television. There was nothing remotely like it so there was no reason to expect it would be successful but it did just that. It captured people's hearts and won them over by the end of the first season.

Q. What was it like on the set?

Richard T: It was great. We were all very close; but like all families we had our ups and downs. There were good days and bad days; but it was a very happy company. We still stay in touch and get together when we can. It's a terrific bond.

Q. Did it remain fun over the course of the series?

Richard T: It was a lot of fun; but serious work. We believed in the show. We were never jaded. I mean, you can't work someplace for five years without your water cooler days, but by and large it was a very happy experience.

Q. Can you imagine the numbers of people around the world who went to bed saying good-night John Boy, etc.

Richard T: It's incomputable. It was International. Any time I'm in the British Isles it's crazy. All over the world it's amazing.  I even had Vietnam POWs tell me they did the "goodnights" in their cells just to make sure they were still there.

Q. Why do you think the show was so popular?

Richard T: It was a show that people remembered and it had meaning for them. It was deeply gratifying to us. If you're going to do a series, that's what you want to do.

I'm proud of it, and I was incredibly lucky to be a part of it. We were all good and worked hard; but the show's success was fortuitous.

Q. You directed a few episodes. Was that enjoyable?

Richard T: It was kind of a training for me to learn that process. I never had ambition to be a director, but that's the safest environment to learn when you can direct from own series. You know the actors, the sets, the camera men; it's almost impossible to make a mistake. Everyone is there to help you. It was a great apprenticeship, and I enjoyed it.

Q. You did so many other TV shows. Did you have a favorite that you appeared on?

Richard T: About 50 (he laughs) Roots was wonderful. I have to say All Quiet on the Western Front  and Red Badge of Courage. I'm very proud of a little movie I did, No Other Love (1979), and What Loves Sees (1996), a movie I co-produced with Hank Williams, Jr. There were so many I was happy about, but you don't pull an ace out of the bag every time.

Q. What do you think about TV today?

Richard T: It's scary. I don't watch very much. I have a 12-year-old at home, and we watch the news a lot; but there's too much news anyway. It's such a debased form. We do watch Ugly Betty, and my son likes it, too. I think it's a great show. America Ferrera is wonderful. She's a bright light, and the show has great heart. I love that it's very funny and wicked and witty, but also very touching. The theme of that show should be that superficiality is only skin deep, but as wicked and shallow as they are, they're all people that you care about. It has a wonderful quality of comedy and pathos.

I also like Breaking Bad - but it's hard for me to watch. I know it's a terrifically made show. There is something for everyone out there but not as much for families as there used to be and that's too bad. And by family I don't mean kids shows, but things like The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie. You can have intelligent shows for families that are dramatic as well as they are funny and heartwarming and they don't have to be reductive or overly sentimental. But sadly, no one is interested. It's gotten very slick and hip, and we're back to the cynical old days. There are too many cop shows, too many of the same thing, and not enough genre clusters out there.

Q. You have a very established career. Is it easy for you to get quality work?

Richard T: Not necessarily. Some times you just need to make a penny, and you do what comes along. I think the great models for this career are the British because they'll do anything - something that is fantastically high quality project and then something that some ask, " how could they do that?" But they love their work, and when they need the money it's the project for the money and when it's about the art, they do that. And it's nice to have both. Everyone needs to work.

Q. You've done several Terrence McNally plays, what is it about this work that you like?

Richard T: He's a wonderful writer, and I've known him many years. We've done five plays together, the latest the Unusual Acts of Devotion. It's very wicked and sad and funny at the same time. Very human, and that's the hallmark of his plays, the humanity and passion. That's what I love about his plays; they have humanity to them.

Q. Do you have a different approach to stage performances vs. TV or film?

Richard T: Of course. They all have different working techniques. Acting on stage is very different than paying to a camera - vocally and physically. On stage you're playing through and working with an audience. Acting is somewhat instinctive and fun to do varied projects. But theatre is my first love. You're basically going for same thing which is to create a character and give a performance that has an impact on the audience and has a dramatic affect and is entertaining. And wouldn't it be a drag to work in only one medium.

Click here to read more about Richard Thomas

 

Photo credits: Warner Bros.

 



                       

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