Richard Thomas Chats with Dove about The Waltons and Family Programming

by Edwin L. Carpenter, Editor – The Dove Foundation

Richard ThomasRichard Thomas, the star of several Hallmark Channel movies including Time after Time and Wild Hearts, as well as the classic family program, The Waltons, spoke with us not long ago about family programming and his impressions of the availability of family programming. I must admit to being a fan of Mr. Thomas, having enjoyed his run on The Waltons for many years, in addition to his other fine performances in many TV movies, many of which have been considered family programming. I also got to meet him in person when he was in Grand Rapids in 2008 for several performances of 12 Angry Men, and I found him to be congenial and sincere. I remember the first question he asked me after his performance was, “What did you think?” He sincerely wanted to know what I thought of the play. Having done so much family programming, Dove wanted to know what Mr. Thomas’ views are about today’s family market.

Dove: It seems like every time you do a new movie for Hallmark Channel they bring The Waltons back on their schedule.

Richard: “Isn’t that interesting? They did bring it back. I think when I was watching the picture (Time after Time) there was a little banner across the bottom, those things that drive you crazy while you’re watching, about what’s coming next, and it mentioned The Waltons and I thought, ‘Is that new? Did they just bring that back? Or has that (the show) been there for a while?’ I knew it ran on Hallmark Channel for a long time. I thought it had gone off.”

Dove: It did and they brought it back again. They get requests for it all the time when it’s not airing. Tell us a little about Time after Time, which has been called a love-story fairy-tale. I know your character in the movie, Dick, is different than the character of the sheriff you played in Wild Hearts a few years ago.

Richard: “It was fun, I enjoyed it. It was an older role than I’ve played, which is nice, closer to my age, not quite my age but closer, and I liked that. I think he was originally around 60 but then when they did the math of how old they wanted the young Dick to be they made him 55. But still in all, closer to my own age than I normally get to play. I liked the fact that it was funny and sweet and it was a play without villains and a play with a very delicate sort of light touch and it’s very unusual now and very rare. I thought, ‘This will be fun to do’ and I liked the message of the script.”

Richard has to play the older version of Dick and the actor who played the younger version worked with Richard a bit on physical mannerisms but they kept their own personalities in it as well, realizing that a thirty year gap would reveal some differences in the character. Richard added they made the movie in fifteen days which is pretty quick.

Dove: I realize this is a bit off the subject, but I am interested in what happens during live plays if something goes wrong. I once read that while doing 12 Angry Men you forgot to have the knife with you (which he is supposed to stab into the table). Did that happen and if so, what did you do? Richard: “Well, it did happen but we always had a spare knife in my briefcase in case that would happen! So I had to just open my brief case surreptitiously and get the knife out of the briefcase. When that happens you think, ‘Let’s hope to God it’s in the briefcase!’ And it was. It was kind of alarming, I got out there and realized it wasn’t in my pocket and I thought, ‘Okay, let’s just make sure it’s in the briefcase.’” Richard added that theater can be fun but sometimes you have to act on the fly when these kinds of things occur. Richard Thomas & Edwin Carpenter
Richard & Edwin

Dove: You told us a few years ago that you believe family programming is “an endangered species”.  Do you still feel that way or do you believe that more family programming is available?

Richard: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Dove: I think there’s a bit more. Regarding Mars Needs Moms I read that a writer wondered if there isn’t an influx of too many of these kinds of movies flooding the box office.

Richard: “Yes, but that’s a feature. We’re talking about TV.”

Dove: “Yes. You make a good point. If it’s TV I would say there’s probably not a big difference.”

Richard: “I don’t think there’s a big difference. I think there’s very little family programming, certainly very little family programming that’s inspired in my opinion, which is too bad. I think that family programming is enormously important, especially in a world where everyone is so split up by our culture because different age groups and genders are targeted in the marketplace for different things, so everybody’s off doing their own thing. Programming for when the whole family comes together is very useful and can be very satisfying. I don’t think there’s very much of that. People obviously do watch television but is it a show that’s specifically geared to all ages?  Shows where young people can watch with their parents, and the grandparents can enjoy too.  Shows that the family can participate in and discuss and feel a part of are very unusual now.”

Dove: That’s probably why there are so many requests for The Waltons to air once it’s been off for a while. The stories were so wonderful on the show. Isn’t it really about telling good stories?   Those stories that were told are still relevant today.

Richard: “Well, they are relevant and the series is dated in certain ways regarding trends in television filming, like the zooms and all of that sort of stuff, it may look a bit old but basically the story telling, the acting, the emotional quality of the pieces are absolutely applicable and relevant today. If you did The Waltons today or a show like that it would probably be very, very different for many reasons. You wouldn’t just do that again. Everything works in its own time and then it’s relevant later on, but first of all it has to work in its own time and The Waltons did for many reasons but there’s still room for a family show.

The Waltons is not only a series that is forty years old but it was about a time that was about forty years before that. So we’re getting close to the centennial mark when those people were living! Today I could see a family series working that is more contemporary in terms of dealing with the modern family but would still be a program that people who like family programming would feel comfortable with in terms of putting their family in front of the TV.”

Dove: I personally am very fond of the entire series and I particularly like the episode titled The Job, in which John-Boy reads to a blind girl, and another called The System, in which his friend is caught cheating on an exam. The Achievement is my favorite, the one in which the character of John-Boy reaches his goal and his book is published and he moves to New York. Which Waltons episodes do you look back on fondly?

Richard Thomas as John-BoyRichard: “There were so many that I was fond of. The other day we were visiting my daughter in Los Angeles and this old episode, The Hunt, which was actually the very first one we shot but the second one that aired, was on, and it brought back so many memories and it was such a good show in so many ways. (This show is about John-Boy going hunting with his father and friends for the first time. He realizes he doesn’t want to kill anything. Yet later on when a bear attacks his father, he is up to the challenge to save his father’s life). There were so many shows that I really loved, the ones that you mentioned. I directed some which was scary for me because I had never done that before but was also exciting and satisfying.”

“I remember the story about the Jewish family, the refugee family that came to the area, which was very interesting. And the one about the cousins from the Dust Bowl who came to visit, that brought a lot of history; the holiday ones like our two-hour Thanksgiving special was really great, the one about the Hindenburg. Of course all the episodes that John Ritter appeared in are special to me because he and I had such a good time together.”

Dove: What a tragic loss. He was too young.

Richard: “Way too young. He had a lot more to do.”

Richard added that with the passing of time he is able to watch the shows more objectively without being too self-critical, something many actors are known for.

Richard: “I think most actors are very self-critical actually. I don’t know many people who enjoy looking at themselves. I don’t know any colleagues, friends of mine, who enjoy watching themselves. I mean it’s a very unnatural thing to do, it makes you very self-conscious. It takes time to get over the weirdness. The more work you do the more objective you can be as you look at things. That first encounter with yourself in a new role on screen, on television, is very disturbing and it takes some time to put a little distance between you and the performance before you can really just look at it and say, ‘Oh, that was nice’ or, ‘There I was at that age doing what I did and I wish I was a little more polished actor at that time, I wish I wasn’t so over-expressive’ or whatever it is that any particular actor feels about himself. You become more forgiving. You also become more willing to say, ‘Eh, that wasn’t so great’ and it doesn’t sting like it used to.”

“Seeing the show (The Waltons) when it comes back is always interesting, and it’s fun and for me quite emotional because of my connection with the people. I love seeing Ralph (Waite) and I love seeing Michael (Learned) and I love seeing the kids, and all of the character actors who played the smaller parts on the show. So that’s as much of a pleasure for me now as actually watching the content of the episodes.”

Richard may not always feel comfortable watching himself on TV, but it is pretty certain that fans of his work and of The Waltons will continue to watch not only his new projects, but also watch, with fondness, this classic family series.