Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

The many faces of Richard Thomas


He stars in the Broadway touring company of '12 Angry Men'

Actor Richard Thomas in 12 Angry Men. Photo: Joan Marcus
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The role most closely associated with actor Richard Thomas is quite likely the classic character of "John-Boy" Walton. The 55-year-old Thomas became a household word some 30 years ago, when his sensitive, Emmy-award-winning portrayal of the eldest son of a rural Virginia mountain family struggling through the Great Depression catapulted his career and TV's The Waltons to worldwide acclaim. Those who have followed Thomas' work since his departure from the series realize that the Manhattan-born actor's dramatic range is enviably broad.

Thomas seems destined for a career in acting, having made his Broadway debut at seven, playing John Roosevelt, son of FDR, in the classic Sunrise at Campobello in 1958. Born into a family of entertainers (Thomas' parents were both ballet dancers, and owned The New York School of Ballet), Thomas began studying his craft, winning parts on NYC-based soap operas such as As the World Turns. He went on to define the role of John-Boy Walton in The Waltons during the 1970s.

Many thought that Thomas would be forever type-cast after his success, but the actor deftly transitioned into a series of diverse roles, some of them risky, dark and edgy. A series of performances in the 1990s involved menacing, disturbed personality types. Witness Thomas' chilling portrayal of a suspected wife-killer in 1995's Death in Small Doses; his performance as a sociopathic stalker in 1995's Stalking Laura; his portrayal of a psychotic drifter in 1995's Down, Out and Dangerous; and his starring role in the 1990 movie adaptation of Stephen King's chilling novel It. Thomas mixed things up with his sensitive portrayal of a young gay man who is ultimately seeking to make peace with his deceased partner's mother (magnificently played by Sada Thompson) in the 1990 American Playhouse drama, Andre's Mother .

Thomas has shined in other gay roles, including: the lead in Lanford Wilson's The Fifth of July on Broadway in the early 80s; as the rejected lover in a San Francisco mounting of Terrence McNally's Lisbon Traviata; and his hilarious portrayal of an egomaniacal conductor in McNally's Prelude & Liebestod, the second of two one-act plays which comprise The Stendhal Syndrome.

He is currently delivering a nail-biting performance as the pivotal "Juror Eight" in the Broadway touring company of Reginald Rose's blockbuster play 12 Angry Men. Thomas takes to the stage opposite actor George Wendt in the current production of one of the mainstays of modern American theater.

David Guarino: You enjoyed an Emmy Award and almost iconic status as the eldest Walton son, John-Boy, slowly drawing out your character over the course of the run of the series. You played with some very fine actors, among them the late Ellen Corby, Michael Learned, Ralph Waite and Will Geer. What was it like to be part of that show? Was it exciting, tedious, difficult?

Richard Thomas: Well, all of those things. Doing an hour television show, if you have a leading role, is one of the toughest jobs for an actor. Because of the hours involved, and the fact that it's rigorous and exhausting work. You get a two-day weekend, which is very cool — we don't get that in the theater — but you're working anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day. So it's a very tough job, and it can get to be a grind, but if it's a show you believe in and if the people you're working with are wonderful, it's also a thrilling experience. I really have nothing but happy memories of doing that show. You know, Will had a long background in theater before he worked in Hollywood. Will, Michael, Ralph and I were all theater actors, so we did have that feeling of being in a company. That's about as lucky as a young actor can get, in my opinion.

Does it ever get annoying when people remember you most for that early role as John-Boy?

I look at it in a different way. I'm astonished that 30-some years after I left this show, that character is still as vivid as ever in people's minds. I think that's kind of a miracle. It hasn't kept me from working; it certainly didn't h

Richard Thomas and George Wendt in 12 Angry Men. Photo: Joan Marcus
urt my career. I don't talk about it very often because it sounds self-congratulatory, but there's enough historical context now to say that John-Boy was also a new, different kind of male character on television. He really did break a lot of molds in terms of what a male television series lead character should be. With the character, I was able to create a kind of male sensibility that was not common on television at that time, or even in the movies.

I was deeply moved by your performance in Andre's Mother, as Andre's grieving partner Cal Porter.

I take a lot of pride in the gay roles I've played. I'm really lucky to have a lot of fans in the gay community. Starting in 1980 with Fifth of July, that was a fantastic play and a wonderful part. To play Kenny Talley in Fifth of July, and Cal Porter in Andre's Mother, or more recently, being cast in McNally's The Stendahl Syndrome or Lisbon Traviata, these have been wonderful roles. I don't think I've ever played a gay character that is the typical gay stereotype. These characters are all beautifully drawn human beings who just happen to be gay men; they didn't contribute to a stereotyping point of view, they're wonderfully humanizing, broadening and inclusive. And also, let's be frank; gay characters are often funny, written as exciting, self-aware people. McNally's characters are just astonishing.

To what do you attribute your long-standing success in this business?

Oh, I don't know, it's a mystery! Well, a certain amount of talent. A certain amount of skill and stick-to-it-iveness, and focusing on trying to get better. The desire to take talent and actually improve it, give it skill. A great deal of luck. An ability to have a rapport with audiences, which is kind of a mystery.

You know, theater is not a particularly lucrative end of the business. Touring is pretty lucrative as theater goes, but theater is not on the same planet financially as a television series or having a big movie career. But I've always wanted it, and I've always loved it. My ability to stick to that, to continue to have a commitment to the theater has been the source of a lot of satisfaction for me in my career.

What are the advantages of doing a national tour like 12 Angry Men?

One of the exciting things about touring is that for those of us who have been involved in a big hit TV series, like George [Wendt] and I, you have an opportunity to come in front of an audience who already knows you well. But they've never seen you play for them personally. So the idea of being able to travel around the country and give performances personally for people with whom you already have a relationship based on the TV familiarity is really fun. When we come out, the audience says things like, "There's Norm, there's John-Boy." Five minutes into it, and people forget about all that and are just caught up in the play.

How did you prepare for the dark, edgy roles in which you played an obsessed stalker in The Stalking of Laura Black, or an accused wife-killer in Death in Small Doses? Were these roles challenging to play?

Those dark characters are very satisfying to play, because you really have to look into a frightening part of yourself. We all have murderous impulses, it's just that not all of us become murderers. It's just a question of touching that part of yourself that is capable of having a murderous impulse.

Could you share a career goal that you haven't as yet reached?

Oh, I'd love to have the experience someday of doing a musical.  I've never done one, and of course that's a terrifying prospect, but I think it would be very exciting.

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