The Interviews: Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas discusses his long career and why he doesn't mind hearing "Goodnight, John-Boy."
For a vast number of Americans over a certain age, Richard Thomas is practically a member of the family.
Thomas as John-Boy Walton, that is. his portrayal of the oldest son in a large and loving depression-era Appalachian family was key to the popularity of CBS’s The Waltons, which segued from a 1971 telefilm to a nine-season series and three reunion movies.
The “Good night, John-Boy” that closed every episode struck a homey chord with viewers, and despite its ubiquity in its heyday, Thomas maintains he’s never tired of the sign-off. “It’ll be on my tombstone, I’m sure,” he says good-naturedly.
“The ‘good nights’ were emblematic of the show,” Thomas observes. “No matter what the family went through, no matter who was in conflict with whom, no matter what the hardship might have been, when it was time to go to bed, everyone was together and it was the making whole again of the family.”
Thomas was Emmy-nominated twice as best lead actor in a drama for his role as John-Boy — an aspiring novelist who leaves home to fight World War II — and, to his surprise, won the Emmy in 1973. But the family drama was neither the beginning nor the end of his acting career.
The New York native learned his craft as a child actor. “I learned by doing, and there’s no substitute for on-the-job experience,” he says. In addition to appearing in many movies and series, including a nuanced role in FX’s The Americans, he appeared in the 2017 Broadway revival of The Little Foxes, for which he was Tony-nominated.
Thomas was interviewed in November 2016 by producer Adrienne Faillace for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be seen at TelevisionAcademy.com/ Interviews.
Q: You were on television when you were quite young. What was your debut?
A: A Hallmark Hall of Fame show called “The Christmas Tree.” 1958. It was sort of an Omnibus show, with different Christmas stories, and one of them was called “The Miracle of the Orphanage.” It was about two ladies who ran an orphanage, played by Jessica Tandy and Margaret Hamilton — a very good way to start, right?
They were wonderful to me. The idea of working very early on with older actors — from whom you obviously had a great deal to learn — this is part of the great thing about being a child actor. You’re apprenticing. You’re learning all the time.
Q: Let’s talk about your path to The Waltons. How were you cast in 1971’s The Homecoming: A Christmas Story?
A: My agent called with an offer to do this Christmas special. Not a series — it wasn’t a pilot. All I knew was that it was with Patricia Neal. Given my upbringing as a child actor, working with all of these astonishing people, I was like, “Fantastic! I want to work with Patricia Neal.”
I read the script, and it was a fabulous part. I’d been making movies — I’d done Red Sky at Morning. Earl Hamner had seen me in that and wanted me, so they sent the script.
Q: Where did it shoot?
A: I think it was at CBS Radford [in Studio City, California] for interiors, and in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the outdoor stuff. It was a snowy winter, really beautiful. The kids — we all got along. Pat was wonderful. Fielder Cook, the director, could not have been more perfect. Edgar Bergen played the grandfather. It was magic.
One day we had a huge snowstorm and couldn’t shoot. We were stuck in the hotel. All the kids got a call saying, “Come down to the lobby.” So we did, and Edgar came down with his suitcase, took out Mortimer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy and did a show for us. I felt really lucky. When the program aired, it was clear that something special had been done.
Q: How were you approached about taking it to series?
A: They called and said they wanted to make it a series. I wasn’t really interested because I was making pictures. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in doing television — I just wasn’t particularly interested in tying myself up. But then I read the scripts, and they were fabulous. There was no way I couldn’t do it.
Q: Did you sign a multi-year contract?
A: I signed a five-year contract. That was standard. What I didn’t do was, I never extended my contract. Classically you do a renegotiation. The show is doing well, you renegotiate for a higher salary, and they say, “We’ll give you more, but you’ve got to give us another year.”
I never extended my contract because even at that young age, I suspected that at the end of five years I wanted to be free to make a decision about whether I wanted to keep doing it. The effect that a series role has — not that you want to eclipse it or have people forget it — but you want to be able to move on and balance your career in people’s minds.
The longer I stayed in a show, the longer that was going to take when I got out. I think I was right about that.
Q: Earl Hamner had wanted you specifically for John-Boy. Tell us about working with Earl.
A: There are no words to express what I owe Earl Hamner. It’s impossible to measure what playing that role gave me as an actor, not only in terms of the experience of playing it, but in the effect that it had on my later work. My debt to Earl can’t ever be paid back, except to try to take what he gave me and turn it into good work.
This show wasn’t created by committee; this was auteurism. This was an autobiographical experience that was turned into fiction, first in Earl’s novels, then in the movie and in the series. We were dealing with source material that came from a place of great integrity and authenticity.
Earl was at the heart of it. He wrote it. He oversaw the scripts he didn’t write. He rewrote the scripts that other people had written. He was the beginning and end of that show.
When you add to that his qualities as a human being — his good humor, the patience and the latitude that he would give us, the respect he had for the actors, his good faith in everybody, his willingness to rewrite… He was a wonderful man. Such a gentleman. So many Southern virtues came into play in the way he dealt with us as actors.
Q: John-Boy was based on Earl. Did you pick his brain about the character?
A: I didn’t. Had I been an older actor, I probably would have. But I was still a child actor growing up, so I had a script and I was going to learn the script. He would talk about his family to some degree, so we learned things because he was forthcoming. But I always just trusted him. I thought, “If the writing is good, this is all I need to know.”
It was clear to me early on that John-Boy was based on Earl, but it was fiction, a fully created work of art. And once he had me, Earl wrote for me, as playwrights will do when they have an actor who works with them many times. They hear your voice in their head.
They understand your sensibility and begin to put you on the page, as well. It’s this strange alchemy of things that come together.
Q: There are a couple of things that we could rely on seeing in The Waltons — one was a dinner scene.
A: Well, dinner scenes are wonderful, in theory.
They are at the heart of the show, but they can be a nightmare to shoot. They take a long time, so by the time the scene is over, everybody is in a foul mood. You just want to get out. I remember we had to choose our seats — at a dinner table, people sit in the same place.
Because I was so fond of Will, I made the incredibly naive mistake of placing myself between Will Geer and Kami Cotler, who was seven or eight. I got between an adorable child actress and a scene-stealing machine. It’s a wonder that I was noticed in any of those scenes between Kami and Will.
Q: Michael Learned has said that you and Will were pranksters. Any outtakes you care to share with us?
A: There were tours [at The Burbank Studios] — people would come around in the trams and the guide would say, “Oh, here’s John-Boy and Grandpa playing a scene from The Waltons.”
One time, Will and I were sitting in the pond and we had swimming trunks on. We decided that during the shot, we’d get our swimming trunks off under the water and when we finished the scene, we would get on our hands and knees, sing a chorus of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and moon the tour. Which we did. You never saw a tram pull away so fast in the history of studio tours.
Q: Another regular occurrence on The Waltons was the “good nights” at the end. And of course, the famous, “Good night, John-Boy.” Has the phrase followed you throughout your career?
A: I’ll hear it today, at some point. I’ll hear it several times before the end of the day. It’ll be on my tombstone, I’m sure.
But, of course, the “good nights” were emblematic of the show. No matter what the family went through, no matter who was in conflict with whom, no matter what the hardship might have been, when it was time to go to bed, everyone was together and it was the making whole again of the family.
Because I’m John-Boy, “Good night, John-Boy” has always been with me and I love it.
There was a time when I didn’t like it so much. You leave a show and you expect that millions of people…. Remember, there were three networks then, so we’re talking about a huge population of viewers…. But to expect at age 26 that when you decide to change, everybody’s going to change with you, it’s absurd. If I hadn’t felt the way I felt about the show, there would probably still be some weirdness around that.
But, in truth, it’s nothing but wonderful.
Q: The show was a hit after the first season, and you started to get recognized more often….
A: It was crazy. I had felt like an upcoming star when I was making movies and guest-starring, and I knew I was headed in the right direction. But when this explosion happened…. You save your ass by remembering it’s just a job. And it’s not a job that’s going to last forever. That came in handy for me.
Still, I was impossible — I was 20-some years old, living in Hollywood and the star of a series. Are you kidding? Hollywood is made for that. And when it’s happening and you’re young, it’s like a magic carpet ride. You just have to be careful you don’t kill yourself or anybody else.
Q: You won an Emmy for playing John-Boy in 1973….
A: It was totally shocking. I didn’t expect to win. I wrecked my car on the way there that evening. We’d been at work, I was driving home — this tells you a little something about my upbringing.
Here I am, a young star in Hollywood with my first car — and it was a white Volvo station wagon. I wasn’t exactly on the fast track. But I was driving and thought, “You might win this thing. You’re not going to, but you might. If you do, what the hell are you going to say?” I had no idea.
So, I started to think about it, and — bam — I went right into the car in front of me. I didn’t mess up my car too bad, but bad enough. I drove home, and I’d forgotten to think of what I was going to say. Then I’m sitting in the theater, and they called my name. I went up and I was like, “I wrecked my car.”
My business manager said it was the first insurance claim they’d ever seen made on national television. I thanked my two families — my real family and my Waltons family. But that was the last thing in the world I expected to happen. It was great, absolutely great.
Q: After five years, when your contract was up, you did leave the show.
A: The infinite wisdom of a 26-year-old. I decided that I didn’t need to do it anymore. There was absolutely no reason for me to leave, except that I was ready.
Everybody was getting along, the pay was good, the show was good. I loved my part. I didn’t have another offer. It was just, “How much longer can I sit up there in that room writing without everybody starting to talk about John-Boy in a really different way? It’s time for the character to move on; it’s time for me to move on. It was five years. In another five years it will probably bury me.”
And I just made the decision. My agent couldn’t believe it. The producers couldn’t believe it. They offered me more money — they thought it was a negotiating stance. It was never a negotiating stance.
It might have been the stupidest thing I ever did in my life. I could have stayed on the show for another four years and made a lot of money. And probably there would have been another series or spinoff. But I made my choice and I don’t regret it, because it was my choice.
Q: What do you recall about filming your last episode as a regular, “The Achievement”?
A: It was really, really sad. I loved everybody, and it was horrible to leave. It was like leaving home. It was leaving home. I have the slate from my last shot of that show, which was a closeup of me. I have it in a frame, the last look. It was profoundly difficult.
Not just for me. I think people probably felt betrayed and Earl, he was so good about it. I can’t imagine what he was thinking. He probably wanted to kill me. But he was like the perfect parent: he let me go.
Q: Do you recall if the episode was promoted as your last?
A: I don’t remember. I came back the next season and did a couple more episodes, just to demonstrate my love for the show and that there were no hard feelings on my part. But then they got somebody else, Bob Wightman.
When I found out they were going to have a new John-Boy I thought, “Well, I guess they can do whatever they want.” I mean, I did leave. And then I thought, “Oh, that’s going to be hard.” I don’t really know how that went; it was maybe for a couple of seasons. A nicer guy you couldn’t find and a really good actor, but it was an odd choice, to bring John-Boy back.
Q: Let’s talk about some of your non-Waltons work. In 2013, you began playing FBI supervisor Frank Gaad on FX’s The Americans.
A: Deeply satisfying. I loved Frank Gaad. I wish he’d come back and haunt all of them. That happened because I made a  TV movie called Stalking Laura with Brooke Shields, and one of the producers was Joel Fields, a great guy. We maintained a friendship over the years.
[When he was launching The Americans ] he said, “There’s a part in it, the FBI boss, but we don’t want him to be a typical FBI guy. We want to have a different sort of note, something more counterintuitive. Would you be interested?”
Trusting Joel implicitly and loving the concept, I said, “Yes, I would love to.” It was a part unlike any I’d ever played. It gave people something to see who would say, “Oh, that’s not a Richard Thomas part.” I loved it.
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring actor?
A: This advice is worth exactly as much as you’re paying for it. I learned by doing, and there’s no substitute for on-the-job experience. No academy training can prepare you for the moment itself. And you just can’t have a Plan B. If you’re flying with a net, you’ll fall, and if you have a Plan B, you’ll take it. Because it’s that hard. So, no net and no Plan B.
I tell this to kids in the presence of their parents, and I can see the look of horror on the parents’ faces. But it’s so hard to do. Not the doing of it — it’s no harder than a million other professions. But the odds are so long. If there’s anything you think you might be able to do better, do that. Because… no plan B.
Q: All right, you said you’d hear the line today — may I have the honor of saying The Waltons sign-off?
A: Please do.
Q: This is for everyone who wishes they were in my chair right now. Good night, John-Boy.
A: Good night, Adrienne.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019