Richard Thomas – On the Road with “12 Angry Men”

by Edwin L. Carpenter – Editor, The Dove Foundation

Actor Richard Thomas is coming to Grand Rapids as the star of “12 Angry Men,” with eight performances in five days at the DeVos Performance Hall, beginning the evening of March 19 and running through March 23. The show is part of the “Broadway Grand Rapids” series and the national tour is produced by the New York-based Roundabout Theatre Company.  Richard is known for doing a lot of family programming, including “The Miracle of the Cards”, which received five Doves from The Dove Foundation, our highest rating, and the Hallmark Channel film “Wild Hearts”, another quality project which also earned five Doves. Many people fondly remember him from his days on the family series “The Waltons”.

“12 Angry Men” was written by Reginald Rose and has been incarnated in several forms, including a 1954 TV special,  a 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda, and subsequently the stage version in 1964. It is a play rife with tension as one dissenting juror, juror eight (played by Thomas), stands against the other eleven jurors in his conviction that the defendant is not guilty. The play, though intense, is mild in its content, and is one play that families could enjoy together as parents decide if their children are mature enough to watch a play about a suspected murderer’s fate being decided. The play takes a good look at our judicial system and how we still deal today (as when it was written) with prejudices.

I spoke with Richard Thomas by phone recently while he was in Portland, Oregon, getting ready to perform the second show of eight performances in six days.  The next stop is Grand Rapids, Michigan where his schedule is even more taxing, with eight performances in five days.

We began our interview by asking Richard how the weather was in Portland. “Well, right now the sun is shining,” he said. “It wasn’t this morning but it is now. For a city that has 220 days of clouds I’m very lucky to have some sunshine here today.” When I told him we had gotten close to one hundred inches of snow this winter, he replied, “Unbelievable!” He wanted to know what it was currently like and at the time it was in the forties. I found it humorous when he said, “You’re not expecting any major stuff next week– because I sent my big boots home already!”

I assured him I knew of no major storms which might be lurking in some corner over Grand Rapids. “We’re very excited to get there, I’ve never been…and it should be very cool,” he said.

We asked Richard how it felt to be part of an opening night and a closing night of a play and if the feelings and response were different or the same. “Well no, it’s very different,” he said. “You’re obviously giving the same performance– your main focus is on the performance. You want it to be consistent.  Do you mean the opening night of a particular town?” We affirmed that, and he said, “Closing night in Grand Rapids won’t be closing night for the play, it will be closing night in Grand Rapids. For instance we were in Toronto for five weeks and they just went crazy for us. So, when you finish a run in a city that’s really liked you—in fact we were asked to come back to Toronto for two weeks because it was so successful–on an opening night, you don’t know if you’re in a new region, a new theatre, a new part of the country, you don’t know how your audience is going to react. You don’t know if they’re going to be effusive and very generous and a vocal audience like they were in Toronto, or a bit more reserved—it doesn’t mean they don’t like it as much—but they’re a little less interactive sometimes in the Midwest which is fine too because it’s not a comedy although there’s a lot of humor in it.

“So you don’t know what your audience is going to be like– It’s like an introduction, you’re meeting each other for the first time. As the week goes on you get to know the audience very well. If the audience is particularly embracing of the show then usually the very last performance, you hate to leave a place where you know they love you. It’s always a bit of a celebration because people come and sort of cheer you off at the end and that’s great.”

The tour ran from September 2006 to May of last year, and then started up again (with a stop in Detroit last fall) and is scheduled to run until June of this year. We asked Richard if the tour were to be extended past June, would he continue and he said no decisions had been made at this point and that he hadn’t spoken with anyone.

I asked Richard how he keeps up his energy doing eight shows in five days. “We’ll do eight shows in five days which is taxing but generally speaking we do eight shows in six days which is the normal thing. That’s what actors do in the theatre so you’re used to that schedule. This is a quick show. It’s a ninety-minute show.” There is no intermission in the play, with all twelve actors on stage for a straight ninety minutes.

We’ve seen photographs of Richard from the play, which reveals he is in great shape for 56 years old. We asked him how he manages to keep in such good shape. “Well, I don’t think I’m in such great shape but it’s nice to hear you say that,” he chuckled. I confessed I struggle with my weight and he replied, “I struggle with mine all the time. The biggest challenge on the road is that you’re really at the mercy of whatever the food is like in your community. I mean, Portland is one of the great food cities in America, and the Pacific Northwest is particularly proud of its organic and natural and healthy food so we’re going to eat very well this week. I don’t know what it’s going to be like in Grand Rapids but when you don’t get a home cooked meal for several months at a time the weight issue becomes a problem.

Even with the hectic tour schedule, Richard still makes time for interviews and even TV commercials. Richard’s voice can be heard on some Mercedes Benz commercials which gives him greater freedom to do stage work over an extended period of time. “I had a session yesterday here in Portland. I don’t know if I’m going to have one scheduled in Grand Rapids but they find a studio wherever I happen to be and bring me in to do stuff. It works for me well because I don’t have to be at the theatre usually until the evening.”

The play uses the same text and same time period as when it was originally performed years ago. “We were adamant about keeping it in the same time period and style of the original,” said Richard. We at Dove have read glowing reviews of the play and I commented on this to Richard, stating it must feel good to be appreciated after all the hard work.

“It’s very satisfying,” Richard replied. “By and large the reviews have been wonderful for the play. The only people who have had critical things to say about the production or about my performance are people who go into the theatre expecting to see the movie. Even though the text is the same, the performance is very different and theatre is a very different kind of experience. Those are kind of silly reviews, but we’ve had, by and large, very, very positive critical response. It’s a good part. It’s a good part for me and I’m very, very happy playing it and I’ve been very gratified that it’s been received the way it has.”

I asked how he put his own stamp on the role, played in the film by Henry Fonda, and he replied, “You can’t help but put your stamp on it. The nature of acting is that the only thing you have to offer is yourself and you’re going to be different from the last guy who did it and the next guy who does it will have something to offer that you don’t. I’m a very, very different kind of actor than Henry Fonda. There’s no way we would have given a similar performance at all. We have very different physical and vocal and energetic characteristics and so it would be bound to be a completely different performance.”

We asked Richard, who has done a prolific amount of stage work, what his favorite roles have been on the stage. “At the moment this would be my favorite because I’m enjoying it so much. I’ve played a lot of great roles in the classics—those are very satisfying to me—the big Shakespeare roles like Hamlet and Richard the Second. And then there are contemporary roles like ‘Fifth of July’, Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally’s play. There’s just such a wide variety when you work in the theatre. The writing in plays tends to be a lot deeper and a lot richer than the writing for television. It’s very satisfying.”

We asked what actor or actors’ work Richard enjoyed. Ironically, he said, “I love Henry Fonda. I’ve always loved his work. I worked with him in ‘Roots’ (Roots: The Next Generation), he played my dad in that, there’s a connection there. I’m a great student of the great fifties naturalist actors, Brando chief among them. Geraldine Page was one of my goddesses as an actress. These are people…a lot of them played my parents in different things. There are lots and lots of actors to admire for what they particularly do, for the particular stamp they’ve put on the work.”

We asked Richard if he was able to see some occasional movies.  “I’m a member of the Academy and I’ve had to sort of abstain and excuse myself from voting for the last couple of seasons. With the tour I really haven’t had a chance to see a lot of movies.”

We asked him if he had anything in the works for a family movie or what he planned for his next project and he said, “It’s way too early to tell. There are a couple of plays I’m looking at for the fall, but in terms of TV, the TV films tend to come up very quickly. I’ve still got a few months to go before I’m done here. I’m sure there’ll be something in the summer. I like making my movies for Hallmark because they reach the audience who love ‘The Waltons’. That’s gratifying. You never know what it’s going to be. I mean if I had something I would love to talk about it.  Things will probably start popping up I would say a month or so before I’m done. You never know. This business is really something. Some people can’t imagine how we handle that—the unknowingness of it but knowing something is an illusion anyway—you never really know what’s coming! And sometimes when you think you do know what’s coming you have your biggest surprise.”

I replied that I heard someone once say you’re never really free from surprises in life until you die. “That’s right and that might end up being the biggest surprise of all!”

As we wound down the interview we asked Richard to name a few of the states he has really enjoyed touring in. “The cities we’ve played in Florida—they’re great theatre lovers, they love their theatre. Some cities you don’t know what to expect like Sacramento which we were like oh well, you know, maybe it’s not as interesting as San Francisco, we don’t know but the audiences in Sacramento turned out to be wonderful, just fabulous. Toronto’s great. I’m madly in love with Boston. I had never been to Portland before and I haven’t been here long enough to really explore but I think I’m going to love it this week. There’s something everywhere. The Texas audiences are very warm, very engaging. Every place has something different. If you get into a place that has a real sense of community and is not sort of going through a sort of depressed time you tend to have a great time in the theatre with the audience although Cleveland, which is a city which has had a lot of economic issues–they were very, very warm. What we’ve learned in the tour is that there’s something terrific in just about every place you go.”

We hope our Dove readers will be able to make their way out to see the play, a rare opportunity to see Broadway in your own hometown. Richard Thomas is passionate about the play and his role, and if enthusiasm gets it done, then this is one night out you will greatly enjoy.