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Interview with Richard Thomas


By Beth Herstein

James Spader, Richard Thomas and David Alan Grier in Race
It's impossible to think of the actor Richard Thomas without recalling his role as John Boy Walton in the family drama, "The Waltons." Though he played the part for only five years in the 1970s along with a few later and reunion episodes, the show made an indelible imprint on American culture and made Thomas a well loved figure throughout the world. However, even before then he had established his reputation as an actor. The son of two dancers with the New York City Ballet, the native New Yorker appeared in his first dance production when he was just six and made his Broadway debut at seven, in Sunrise at Campobello. By the time Thomas debuted in "The Waltons" at the age of 21, he had appeared on Broadway three more times.

Since departing from "The Waltons" in 1978 Thomas has embraced his reputation as a family friendly performer, but he has never been limited by it. He's made scores of television appearances over the years, ranging from Hallmark Hall of Fame movies to adaptations of Stephen King thrillers. Last year, he played Reverend Don in the amiable flick Taking Woodstock. He also has star turns in "Law & Order" and "SVU" under his belt.

More significantly for Talkin' Broadway readers, Thomas has never forgotten his theater roots. He has performed on Broadway semi-regularly over the years, in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July (a role he later reprised in the television adaptation of the show), David Hare's Democracy and Richard Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way. Notable Off Broadway parts include acclaimed productions of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice and Terrence McNally's The Stendhal Syndrome. He has also appeared in regional theater and touring companies, including the Roundabout's national tour of Twelve Angry Men and several well received productions of McNally's Unusual Acts of Devotion.

Currently, the actor is on the New York stage again, in the cast of Race, a new play by David Mamet, who is making his Broadway directorial debut. Thomas plays Charles Strickland, a wealthy white male who is accused of raping a black woman and who approaches a law firm for legal representation. The other cast members—James Spader, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington—play lawyers at the firm. I recently interviewed Thomas about his work in Race.

Beth Herstein:  Your character is ambiguously drawn, very much on purpose it seems because you need to allow people to project their presuppositions onto you throughout the show.

Richard Thomas:  That is exactly the challenge and purpose of the character in the play ... A lot of people have said to me, "I wish you were on stage more often," because the character only has three scenes. But it's very important that the character isn't on stage too often because mostly it's about what is said about him and what people wonder about him and, as you say, the projections people make onto this character. If you spend too much time explaining, then the mystery wouldn't be there and the mystery about him is very much at the center of the play.

BH:  How do you approach the part?

RT:  In order for me to let the play do its work it's very important that I don't skew the character one way or another, towards being guilty or being innocent. [Mamet] takes care of all of it in the writing; you don't have to push it one way or another to make it work. All you have to do with a Mamet line is to mean what you say, and it's true with this character as well. It's an astonishing piece of writing because the more forthright and clear he becomes the more ambiguous he becomes to the audience, and that is a very hard thing to do for a writer. The part also requires a kind of stillness which is very fun to do and challenging, physically, at the same time.

When I'm out there on stage, I can feel the projections of the audience hitting me every time I get on stage. "He's guilty." "He's innocent." "He's a tool." "He's a manipulator." "He's a racist." "A bad white rich guy." Or "A misunderstood white rich guy who people won't give a chance to because he's supposed to be the bad guy." At the end of the play audiences are very divided about how they feel about the character, about his guilt, about his innocence. It's extraordinary.

BH:  You mentioned three hot button attributes. He's white, he's male and he's very privileged.

RT:  Those are three reasons enough for him to be hated by a whole lot of people in America.

BH:  Exactly. Or defended, depending on the point of view. In addition, you have a reputation that counterbalances some of the negatives, stemming back to "The Waltons."

RT:  That has a lot to do with how [Mamet] uses me in the play. It may have to do with why he wanted me to do this part. You bring on the stage somebody who's played John Boy, and a lot of roles I've played which are skewed in that direction, and you have somebody who has a rapport with the audience who's being accused of something really horrible. There's a conflict set in motion right there. Yet the character is not Mr. Nice Guy. He's rather arrogant at first, and he's lived a life of extreme privilege. He really gets put through the ringer. In three scenes he manages to undergo an extraordinary transformation, from being completely blind about himself and his motives, to understanding all of a sudden a great deal about what it means to be trapped in the nexus of race, gender, power in America. David would probably cringe at this because I don't think he wants his characters to be conceived of as metaphorical, but to some degree to me, my character represents the changing self awareness of our society in relation to these issues ... The play has a lot to say about gender as well, as his plays always do.

BH:  You referred earlier to the cast. It's a group of powerhouse actors.

RT:  Even though Kerry Washington and James Spader are both making their Broadway debuts it doesn't feel like a play where they brought in stars from Hollywood to bolster the production and help out sales. These are really wonderful actors. I'm always in favor of people who come from film and television who want to walk out on stage and give it a shot. Sometimes somebody comes along who's absolutely going to be great at it, and Spader is an example of that. It's great to see that happen. There's a lot of camaraderie among the actors, which David Mamet set in motion as director.

BH:  What was it like getting to work with him so closely?

RT:  Absolutely delightful. I think we were all a little apprehensive because none of us had worked with David before. Some of the actors had met with him. I hadn't. He called and offered me the role and I accepted and thanked him at once. I thought, "Of course. Are you kidding me?" So I had no experience with him at all prior to the first day of rehearsal. We all wondered how intense it would be, how doctrinaire he was going to be—because we'd all read his works on acting, theater, dramaturgy and technique. But it was fun from the minute he walked into the room until the night he left town and headed back to Los Angeles. Such a sense of play, of jollity and fun and joy in the work, great humor. And he was unfailingly gracious and supportive to the actors. I've never had a better time putting on a show. He was just a terrific colleague. Of course he wanted what he wanted, but he is the director and there's no point in having a director if they're not going to be in charge. I think everyone else in the cast feels exactly the same way.

BH:  You also were in another ensemble piece, Twelve Angry Men, in the Roundabout's touring production. I read an interview you did during the tour, which noted that the story examined our judicial system and our preconceptions about race. I wouldn't have thought of the two shows together, but that comment made me aware of some thematic similarities. However, when Twelve Angry Men ends you know where you're supposed to stand.

RT:  One of the achievements of David's play is that he didn't set out to tell you how you are supposed to think about the subject. He certainly wouldn't presume to tell you how you should feel about it. There's no lecture implicit in this play at all. He doesn't condescend to the audience by attempting to give them a moral lesson ... And there's a sense of freedom at the end of the play because all the issues are brought out there. It's like a good refreshing cold shower.

BH:  Unlike James Spader and Kerry Washington who are making their Broadway debuts in this show, you've been on Broadway since you were a child.

RT:  Yes, I made my Broadway debut in 1958 in Sunrise at Campobello.

BH:  Were you in the show when James Earl Jones was in the cast?

RT:  Yes, that's where I first met him. He was in his early twenties at the time, fresh out of drama school, and I was still in grammar school. We made our first entrances onto the stage together. He was very sweet to me and playful and kind, and he's always been that way to me. It was very nice, such a lovely memory for me.

BH:  In 1963 you again appeared on Broadway, this time in Strange Interlude.

RT:  That was incredible. It was the Actors Studio, kind of a dream cast [including Ben Gazzara, Geraldine Page, Franchot Tone, Pat Hingle and Jane Fonda].

BH:  What was it like working with all those actors when you were a child?

RT:  If you've been raised in the business you know who those people are and you treat them with a certain respect. Learn your lines, don't be obnoxious, pay attention. You come to the work as a child actor more as an apprentice. That was my education. I always knew when I was in the presence of renowned artists that you pay deference and pay attention to them. Had I been a little bit older it may have been more daunting.

BH:  You say that you viewed yourself as an apprentice. Did they mentor you?

RT:  Not really. Everybody was too busy doing their work. You learn by watching them work. Fortunately, in the course of a play, you go to work with the whole cast of the show every night—unlike a film where you may work with only half the people who are in it. You're involved in the total process from the beginning. So you get to watch people do the work of discovery, then the work of performance, then the work of refinement as the performance matures on stage. There's no classroom exercise you can perform that holds a candle to that kind of learning experience. I wish it were different for the sake of all the young people who are out there studying, but it isn't.

BH:  I have to ask you about "The Waltons," which you were on for five seasons. You are such a part of American culture because of it. What is it like to have that as part of your legacy?

RT:  It depends on how you feel about the work. If it's a job you're proud of then it's terrific. If it's something you wish people had never seen or have a sense of embarrassment about then it's probably a millstone. But I loved "The Waltons" and I was very proud of it, although I was 21 and my work was the work of a very young actor. It was still honest work and I loved what the show did and I wish there were more shows like it on television today. Obviously, you go through a period after you leave a show when you think, "Can't we all move beyond this?" But that doesn't mean you aren't proud of the piece, just that you want people to refocus ... If I had been creatively blocked after the show, or hadn't been able to keep working, having a career that I could feel satisfied with, that would be a different story. There probably would be more bitterness there.

Also, as you get older, the people who watched you when they were children are now parents and their kids are watching the dvds and getting to know the show too. It was a wonderful thing for people. To become a part of their past ... there's a great sweetness to it and I really love that.

BH:  I saw you in Stendhal Syndrome at Primary Stages in 2004 and I thought you were phenomenal in it.

RT:  Thank you. That is a great piece of writing ... It was hard hard work, but I loved every minute of it and it was deeply satisfying. It's amazing how many people saw it because it was such a small theater and it had a limited run.

BH:  What were the challenges in performing the monologue in "Prelude and Liebestod," the second piece in the play?

RT:  It's about being completely honest and out front with what's going on inside. There's nothing surreptitious or furtive about what's going on. The hardest part technically was learning to conduct that piece of music, and then doing something that most conductors don't do which is speaking a monologue while you're conducting. [laughs] It's a little more complicated than chewing gum and walking at the same time. The one thing I was most worried about was that I would look like I knew what I was doing as a conductor. I knew that because it was Terrence and because of the subject that there were going to be a lot of music people in the audience on a given night. Renee Fleming was there one night and I thought, "Ok, great."

BH:  You've worked with Terrence McNally on a number of occasions, and you've talked about how musical his prose is.

RT:  His writing is so influenced by music. Any terrific playwright has a unique voice, an unmistakable way of expressing himself. Mamet could only be Mamet, Albee could only be Albee. Williams sounds like Williams. It's all a different kind of music and Terrence is the same way. There's a certain kind of humor and a certain self-performative quality about them. They're always engaged in exhortations about culture. There's a familiar quality to them.

BH:  You did a reading of Williams' work in my home town of New Orleans in 2006, a year-and-a-half after Hurricane Katrina.

RT:  I was there twice for the festival, and the second time was after the hurricane. I love New Orleans, it's one of the truly unique places in America. I also did a movie there years ago [in 1983] called "Hobson's Choice" for CBS and I was there for weeks and had a wonderful time.

BH:  You also were in David Hare's play Democracy on Broadway, and you've worked with Edward Albee and a number of other great contemporary playwrights.

RT:  I have, I've been very lucky.

BH:  You're also the voice of Mercedes Benz.

RT:  My contract finishes this year but I have been. That's been a great experience. It's a great gig, particularly for actors who work in the theater. It's far more remunerative than working in the theater and so it's a wonderful way to subsidize the theater work. But also you can do it while you're doing theater because you can do your voice over recording in the daytime and do your night job at the theater. All dedicated theater actors deserve a voice over contract.

BH:  And some "Law & Order" work.

RT:  I love those shows. I've done two. I did an episode of "SVU" and recently I was in the flagship show. I love working there, it's a great place to work.

BH:  I know you have to go. Thanks so much for your time.

RT:  Thank you. I love talking about the play because I think it's wonderful. As one always expects with Mamet, the reaction critically is divided because David's intention is never to please everybody. [laughter] He'd feel miserably if he had. But it's wonderful that we have gotten a lot of great reviews and that the play is maintaining its great word of mouth. People are going out loving and talking about it, and it's wonderful to see such a diverse audience in a Broadway house. It's been a great experience.

BH:  That brings to mind what one of my former professors said about Ibsen. People walked out of his shows angry when they were first performed and the reviews were sometimes harsh because the plays were much less settling than people were used to.

RT:  What's interesting is that the first production of Mamet's plays are always far more controversial than his revivals. Speed the Plow was perceived when it first came out as being a less significant piece, lighter and fluffier. But when they saw the play the second time in this last, very good revival they saw the play has a lot more depth to it. This play has made some people run to their most defensive postures, but it will be done again and people's perceptions of it will continue to evolve. Like when I did Edward Albee's play Tiny Alice in 1964, it mystified everybody. When we did it again [in 2000-2001] in Hartford and in New York, the play had shed its talk value and the beautiful metaphysical noir aspect of it, the caper aspect of the play came forward and it was more accessible to people. I think this happens over time, and that's why it's important to do plays more than once and over time when they're substantive works.

Photos: Robert J. Saferstein

Race at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue) through March 28, 2010. For performance and ticket information, visit

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