Yesterday afternoon I went to the Time Warner Center to meet a friend for lunch, and who should I see coming up the escalator from Whole Foods but Richard Thomas! ...No? Oh, fine: Richard "John Boy from The Waltons" Thomas! Now you're impressed, right?
You certainly should be. The Waltons was (seriously) a really good show, and Richard Thomas was one of the best things about it. In fact, you can usually measure the quality of a given episode by how central the character of John Boy is to its plot. The one from the first season ("The Love Story") where he falls in love with Jenny Pendleton and sings her sweet hillbilly love songs on his dulcimer? I will drop everything to watch that episode. And when, at the end, sonorous narrator Earl Hamner Jr. intones, "Jenny was to come into our lives again, but the promises we made to each other we were not to keep," I will cry and cry. But if you tune in to the Hallmark Channel and find yourself watching a late-season episode, set during WWII, that centers on Elizabeth's teen angst, or (worse) Mary Ellen and her no-good husband, Curt, or (worst of all) John Boy's return from the war as an entirely different actor, change the channel. You will only be sorry.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Richard Thomas, beloved as John Boy with just cause. But you may not know that there are many other reasons to love him. I mentioned recently that he was surprisingly terrific in the first three installments of Roots: The Next Generations. And those familiar with Law & Order: SVU's honorable tradition of casting, as villains and psychopaths, performers best known for the loveable characters they played on long-running television series in decades past (Henry Winkler, Michael Gross, Fred Savage...) will surely remember Richard Thomas's appearance as syphilis-addled, serial-killing, hallucinatory janitor Daniel Varney (in season 2's "Scourge") as the most harrowing guest-star appearance of all.
And he doesn't just do TV! I jumped at the chance to see him on Broadway, in Democracy, in 2005, and I had the very good fortune to catch him Off-Broadway in Terrence McNally's The Stendhal Syndrome, which was so terrible -- oh my, were those two one-acts dreadful -- that I might have abandoned theatregoing forever had it not been for Thomas's bravura performance. My respect for McNally took a major hit that day, but my regard for Richard Thomas soars ever higher.
So when I walked into the Time Warner Center and saw this man getting off the escalator and thought to myself, "That guy looks just like Richard Thomas... right down to the mole! ...But he's so short!" what else could I do but follow him into Williams-Sonoma, until I heard him talk and was satisfied that it was really him? I couldn't call my mom (who is responsible for turning me on to The Waltons) and tell her I might have seen Richard Thomas out shopping with his family. This called for verification. Confirming the sighting took only a minute's worth of stalking, but I might have continued to trail him for the rest of the afternoon if I hadn't made plans to meet my friend. (Who wasn't quite as excited as I was.) So I went on with my day, and now I'm here to tell you that Richard Thomas is awesome, if not as tall as IMDb says he is (I'm guessing maybe 5'7").
Work is slow this morning, so I'm about to listen to the American Theatre Wing's lengthy "Downstage Center" 2004 interview with Thomas, on the occasion of his appearance in Democracy. And after that I will probably watch this "Working in the Theatre" seminar, where he apparently discusses Twelve Angry Men. And then, since it's raining out, I think I'll spend the afternoon playing with my Waltons Country Home playset. You can drive the pickup truck, but I get to be John Boy!
P.S. Despite the poor quality, that ad is really worth watching. Especially because it was clearly written by someone who never watched the show. "The Waltons' Country Home, with Mom and Pop, John Boy and Ellen..." Weren't the parents called "Mama" and "Daddy"? And who the hell is "Ellen"?