He made his Broadway debut at age 7. When he was 8, he was doing Ibsen. He’s acted in historical dramas and soap operas. He portrayed one of the most identifiable characters in television history. He even amassed the enormous reserves of rowdiness needed for the role of Hank Williams Jr.
And now he’s portraying one of the most beloved characters in literature and cinema.
All in a day’s work for Richard Thomas.
“I’ve been lucky,” Thomas said. “I’ve been able to do it a long time, and with enough success to make me feel good about it. And also, I take great pleasure in doing it.” said Thomas.
Thomas is playing attorney Atticus Finch in writer Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel.
Thomas (center) as Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
This tour began in March 2022 and continues through July. It will be presented at The Straz April 11-16.
“It’s been a long haul,” Thomas said. “We will have been out a year and three months, with a week off last Christmas and a week off last Labor Day. That’s all the time off we’ve had.”
He’s not complaining.
“I love touring, but it is challenging in many ways,” Thomas said. “This has been a long run but we have a great company of actors. The communal spirit of the company is wonderful and we love the story we’re telling. I can’t think of a better story to be telling around the country right now than this.
“To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of America in so many ways,” Thomas said. “It’s very much a story of one of our founding stains and our aspiration to do better. We have this image of ourselves as good and as altruistic. And when that comes up against the realities of the world, we realize how short we’ve fallen.”
Sorkin, whose credits include TV’s The West Wing and A Few Good Men (both on stage and screen), shifts the focus from Scout, Atticus’ daughter who tells the story, to Atticus himself.
In doing so, Thomas said, Sorkin has taken Atticus off his pedestal.
“He has created a teachable character, a man who has things to learn, and whose very secure sense of the world in which he lives is challenged,” Thomas said. “So many of the things that he unquestionably believes are called into question.”
Sorkin, Thomas said, has “taken the spirit of the play and moved it forward in terms of how we’re viewing these issues now.
Thomas, 71, was a professional actor before Mockingbird was published.
His parents were ballet dancers. “I was raised backstage, basically,” he said. “My Equity card turns 65 next year.”
That card was brand spanking new when Thomas, age 7, made his Broadway debut as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son in Sunrise at Campobello. His first television appearance was in a broadcast of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at age 8. He’s been working in film, television and onstage ever since.
Thomas (right) on stage with Ralph Bellamy in Sunrise at Campobello (1958).
Did he ever consider another profession?
“No. I have no other skills,” he said with a laugh. “I was a goner from the beginning. There was no other option for me.”
Thomas’ most familiar role, particularly for 1970s television viewers, was as John-Boy, the eldest son on The Waltons. The series, based on author Earl Hamner Jr.’s memories of growing up in Virginia during the Depression, was a huge hit and made Thomas instantly identifiable.
“I was very proud of that show,” Thomas said. “If you’re lucky enough to be an actor who gets a role that can have that kind of effect and be so indelible in people’s minds, it’s fantastic.”
He’s played scores of other roles: country singer Hank Williams Jr. in a TV biopic, patriot Thomas Paine in a one-man theatrical production. He played an FBI official in Cold War drama series The Americans and has appeared more recently on Ozark and Billions. But for many, he remains John-Boy,
Most episodes of The Waltons ended with an exterior shot of the family’s home, and the voices of the family members – eight kids, two parents and two grandparents – saying “good night” to each other.
So did strangers yell “Good night, John-Boy,” when they saw Thomas in public?
They did. And still do.
“They yell it during the curtain call,” Thomas said. “It happens every day.”