Thomas Shares 50 Years on Screen, Stage

by Howard Hewitt

April 12, 2013

Emmy-Award winning actor Richard Thomas shared stories and tips Friday from more than 50 years on the stage and screen.

Anyone familiar with 1970s television would recognize the familiar face of John-Boy Walton.  He admits the role has never ‘worn off’ and joked, “It will probably be on my tombstone.”

Thomas took questions from Wabash theater students and members of the Wabash and Crawfordsville community. His stage and screen credits go far beyond the iconic TV family drama though. He started work as an actor at seven years of age and continues today with a role on The Americans, FX Network, as a 61-year-old.

But it’s the Walton’s that made him a household name. “It’s a big deal to be lucky enough to create a character that’s vivid enough to always be remembered in people’s mind,” he said of his years as John-Boy Walton. “You never wipe it out but it takes a lifetime to balance it out (with his other work).”

He said the show became a hit because it was unique at a time of the Mod Squad, Laugh-In, and lots of cops and doctor shows. The series was spun off from a made-for-TV movie but a big fan of The Homecoming insisted it made into a series. That big fan, CBS CEO William Paley, said the show could be cast to the producers’ whim but they had to keep all the children.

Has the John-Boy lore worn off? Thomas laughed and said “walk around out there with me” while motioning to the back of the theater.

But Wabash students, way too young to even remember the Waltons in syndication, came to hear about his lifelong career on the screen and critically acclaimed stage roles.

Thomas said the film roles are more lucrative but he loves theater work and the opportunity to work with the words written by the best playwright.

“The difference is texture and the excitement and real challenge is in the text,” Thomas said. He noted that making a movie or even television is hours of waiting and sitting and shooting scenes out of sequence. “In theater, once the curtain goes up everyone is going to get to go on and perform.”

He gave students plentiful tips on the craft of acting, physical presence and awareness of space, but kept coming back to the same theme. “It’s about your sensibility with the words,” he said. “It’s all about how I’m going to work with the words writing for a play.”

He learned his craft the old-fashioned way by working with veteran actors like Christopher Plummer, Julie Harris, Barbara Hershey, and Hume Cronyn. He laughed when thinking of his apprentice ship and noted Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were his parents in 1969’s Winning.

“My parents were dancers (ballet) and I learned discipline from them but I had lots of work as a child actor,” Thomas said. “Then you find yourself doing something similar, as I’m doing today, helping younger actors.”

Mr. Thomas’ appearance was made possible by the Fairfax Corporation, owners of retirement homes in Crawfordsville and Williamsburg. Thomas is a spokesperson for the company.


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