Actor Richard Thomas Believes Family Programming is an Endangered Species

by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation

Actor Richard Thomas, the Emmy-award winning actor of the beloved TV series, “The Waltons,” believes that family programming is an endangered species. Thomas stars in the upcoming Hallmark Channel TV movie, “Wild Hearts,” and he spoke about that along with other topics in a recent interview with The Dove Foundation.

We asked if he had chosen the many family-type roles he has played or simply has been offered the roles, and he replied, “It’s both. I haven’t made a conscious decision to make family films but because ‘The Waltons’ was such a huge success, and was a family show, it sort of placed me in that genre.  But, unlike some actors, I’ve never made a conscious decision not to do family films. I think that family programming, which is different from children’s programming, is a very, very important part of the menu of entertainment and it’s also an endangered species. It’s been an endangered species for a long time.”

“If you remember when ‘The Waltons’ came on the air in 1972 there was nothing like that at the time. It didn’t even exist, period. There was the earlier period in the fifties and sixties where television was made for families as a whole. Then the emphasis really moved towards action, comedy, variety and edgier shows, and of course we were going through the Viet Nam War and Watergate and all that stuff.  It was a different time.”

“I’m not saying that family entertainment should be the only kind on the tube-I think that’s very inappropriate. I think there needs to be something for everybody, but there is a prejudice in the business, with the exception of movies which do extremely well in sort of break-out forms, and everybody’s like, ‘It’s a great family picture and it’s great.’ They love them because they’re successful, not necessarily because they’re family pictures. There is a prejudice in the business against softer, family-oriented work. It tends not to be as commercial.  It tends to appeal to the C and B counties in the heartland of America which is not the area of greater consumerism. The people who love family pictures and family programming tend to get less of what they like for many, many reasons.  Economic reasons of course usually being number one. But there’s nothing like a piece of family entertainment when it’s successful, because when family entertainment is successful it runs all the way across the lines. It’s just that most people, frankly, are thinking about edgier, more action-oriented stuff for young people between the ages of eighteen and thirty.  Those are the ones buying most of the products. It’s unfortunate but it’s the way it is.”

When we mentioned that “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” was an example of family programming which performed well, he quickly agreed. “There’s a market,” he said. He then added, rather humorously, “As we know from the history of people, there’s a market for anything! You can sell anything if you find the person who wants to buy it. But generally speaking, there’s a resistance in the business to family-oriented entertainment– I think across the board actually. But everyone knows that when family entertainment hits big there’s nothing like it.”

We asked Richard if he believed some actors were concerned about becoming typecast as family actors and he said, “Exactly right, and to a certain extent I think that’s happened to me.  I think people are, ‘Oh, he’s not edgy enough,’ or, ‘Oh, he’s not an action guy,’ and you know this happens across the board. You know when Arnold Schwarzennegar made that movie with little kids (Kindergarten Cop) it was ‘Whoa!!!’ We all get pigeon-holed, we all get stuck in our little niches. I’ve just sort of taken them as they come and I’ve turned down scripts that I really thought were not good, not based on whether they were family or not.  And, I have accepted roles that I thought were either appropriate for me or else challenging for me. You’ve got to do both.”

“There are some scripts that come to you and you go, ‘Oh, this is a Richard Thomas part! Don’t offer it to anyone else.’ And then there are roles that come along and you go, ‘Hey! This is a little different. I’m glad they offered me this serial killer–I’ll do that!’”

“It’s a question of balance and also I think a question of keeping yourself excited. If you can go for the things that keep you excited, chances are you’re going to make your audience excited.”

The next role Richard will be seen in is in “Wild Hearts,” premiering July 8 on The Hallmark Channel, and it will be airing July 13 as well. Richard plays a sheriff who leaves L.A. to return to his childhood home of Hope, Montana, to become the interim sheriff and to deal with his father’s recent death.

“I’d never played a sheriff,” said Richard. “It’s brand new and it was fun. I enjoyed it.” In one pivotal scene, Richard’s character, Bob Hart, goes through his father’s letters and old clippings which his father had kept of his son’s career. He and his father had not spoken to one another in years, and the tears begin to flow. We asked Richard how he, as an actor, draws from the well of human emotion.

“It’s a combination,” he said. “One storehouse of emotions is triggered and opened up by associations and memories, feelings that we have, and are based on our own experiences.  We also have within us a reservoir of emotional seeds which is part of our compassionate nature as people – how we feel empathy, how we feel compassion for other people. So, if you open that up, and you’re imagining yourself in the role of this particular person, then the emotions are there. It’s kind of like—unlock the door, open it and leave it alone, and the emotions will come forward based on the situation, if you can imaginatively place yourself there. We’re all people, we all have feelings, and we know what it is to have sudden rushes of overwhelming feelings based on nostalgia and loss.”

We asked Richard about his great facial expressions in his role as the sheriff and in various roles over the years, something he is known for as an actor. Did he really work at that or is it natural for him? “I think it’s just kind of natural,” he responded. “I just let, for the most part, my face be the receiver of my feelings and thoughts and that’s the mirror, the sort of delivery system,” he chuckled. “Nothing is quite as eloquent as the eyes, the face, the brow. Strangely enough, the less you try to control or create facial expressions the more open you are to your feelings, the more your face becomes a natural mirror or reflector of what’s going on inside.”

Richard commented on the characters of “Wild Hearts,” including the character of “Cody,” the bad guy, played by Robert Culp’s son, Joseph Culp.

“Was he not a great, creepy villain?” asked Richard. “He’s very, very good.” Richard also was impressed with Hallee Hirsh, who plays his teenage daughter Madison in the film. “She’s a great young girl. She’s very dedicated. She’s highly intelligent and a wonderful young colleague, and I think she’s gonna do very, very well—I mean, she already is doing very, very well.” Richard was also impressed with Geoff Lewis, who plays Hank the caretaker in the film. “He’s a terrific guy,” he said, “great fun. We had a really nice company. Nancy McKeon and I hit it off brilliantly—it was just a very good, a terrific experience for everybody.”

We asked Richard what he liked best about the story. “I have five daughters,” he replied. “So to tell a story that is about a relationship between a father and an adolescent girl meant a lot to me. I really enjoyed that. I’ve had lots and lots of various experiences with my daughters. It’s a very interesting relationship and it was a terrific opportunity to play it on screen. I’ve done shows with father/son relationships and this particularly was a little different for me and I enjoyed it.”

When asked if he looks for projects that are character-driven or story-driven, he replied, “For an actor, a piece that’s character-driven is always more satisfying and more challenging. I think all actors feel that way. But one of the things that’s important is that character is revealed through action. There’s nothing like a good story, a good plot, and good action to play in which to reveal your character. There are a lot of character-driven movies that just don’t move. And there are a lot of plot-driven movies that have no depth. The ideal combination is a story which evolves because of character but evolves in a way that is both interesting and compelling to the viewer.  True action reveals the psyche of the characters. It’s that combination of the two that makes for a great theatrical or television, dramatic experience.”

Richard spoke enthusiastically about the story of “Wild Hearts.” “This show has a lot of plot. It’s got the father—daughter plot, it’s got the young people and their relationship and the wolves and all that plot.  It’s got the relationship between the father and the vet, it’s got the bad guys, it’s got the relationship between the man and his dead father, and the caretaker—there are many, many different story lines in this picture. One of the challenges of this kind of movie is to keep all those involved interesting without making it too complicated. “

We had fun in asking Richard if the water was warm in the scene in the film in which he dives in, clothes and all, to the lake where he swam as a boy.

“It was beautiful and that’s one of the lucky things you get to do when you’re an actor—jump in the lake with all your clothes on. To get paid for jumping in the lake—that’s what this business is all about!”

Richard has been well rounded over the years in his career, having been on the stage and on Broadway, in TV films, and he has recorded audio books as well as a recent voiceover on a Mercedes Benz commercial.

“The voiceover’s a great blessing,” he said. “It’s a fun job to do and it leaves you financially independent enough to do your work in the theater, which of course as we all know does not pay a lot of money so it helps subsidize those areas of your career which are not so lucrative.” He added that he read two audio books in the past year. “’Team of Rivals,’ is one – a book about Lincoln.  And I read a book called ‘Manhunt,’ which is about the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and the assassination conspirators. Both of those are out now. Both are about Lincoln and Lincoln is having a bumper couple of years with all these books coming out about him but these two are very, very interesting and very different.”

In closing, we asked Richard about a few of his favorite roles over the years. “Well I’d have to say ‘The Waltons,’ obviously John-Boy. I’m very proud of a movie I did called, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ And also ‘Andre’s Mother.’ It was done in 1990.” Richard said it dealt with AIDS and “it was a really fine piece of work.”

“In the theater-there’s been so much. ‘The Fifth of July,’ was when I came back to Broadway. It was very important for me. ‘Red Badge of Courage’ was very special for me. ‘The Christmas Box’– where you get to work with someone like Maureen O’ Hara.”

Richard will be back on stage this fall, on a national Broadway tour of “12 Angry Men.” The show kicks off in Connecticut. “We’re going to start in New Haven,” he said. “We’re going to be in Minneapolis, we’re going to be in Chicago. We’re going to be in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s nineteen cities.”

Richard was pleased to be interviewed by The Dove Foundation. “I’m very excited about it and I appreciate your interest, not just in the picture (“Wild Hearts”) but in the whole family programming thing, and in what Hallmark is trying to do.”

It is nice that an actor like Richard Thomas, seeing that family programming “is an endangered species,” is doing something about it, by appearing in family programming.