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The Later Days of John-Boy : Richard Thomas emerges as an important American actor

“It’s ironic,” said an admirer of Richard Thomas here at the Hartford Stage Company, “that if he lives to be 100, the headline on the obit will be ‘John-Boy Dies at 100.’ ”

Indeed it seems ironic but true. The relatively few seasons Richard Thomas spent as John-Boy on “The Waltons” are indelible. The identification remains upon him so strongly that passers-by here in Connecticut still call out, “Hey, John- Boy!"--with great affection--when they see him. His friend is probably right about the headline, too.

The larger irony is that John-Boy was such a far cry from Thomas’ own earlier life and is so removed in time and tenor from his subsequent life. Last week he concluded a towering, tour de force performance in the Hartford’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s almost never seen “Peer Gynt,” which Ibsen himself said he wrote in 1867 to be read but not played. The Hartford does it as a two-part presentation given either on successive nights or as a matinee-plus-evening marathon on Saturday and Sunday, with a total running time of more than five hours.

“Appalling, isn’t it?” Thomas asked cheerfully over a cup of tea before the Sunday matinee a week ago. He thinks it may be the longest role this side of Ibsen’s own “Emperor and Galilean.”

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Critics from around the country have come to see Thomas and the production and the majority of the reviews have been rhapsodic. Mel Gussow of the New York Times called it “a virtuosic accomplishment” and added that Thomas “validates his position as one of America’s leading classical actors.”

John Simon, who does not please easily, found Thomas “a warm, athletic, well-spoken, imaginative and manifold actor,” although Simon regretted that Thomas did not age visually. (Peer Gynt is 20-ish at the beginning, presumably in his 70s at the end. Thomas’ voice darkens for the later years, but he and director Mark Lamos opted not to go for gray hair and heavy makeup. “He’s the same man; he’s really changed inside very little,” Thomas says.)

On June 4, the Hartford Stage Company will receive a special Tony award for its contributions to regional theater, an honor based on such enterprising attractions as the “Peer Gynt” and an updated “Hamlet” last season in which Thomas as the melancholy Dane mowed down Polonius with an automatic rifle.

Thomas as Peer was on stage almost every minute, unrolling a torrent of words. The character is a kind of Norwegian Peck’s Bad Boy, an anti-hero by later definition, who tells imaginative lies, resents being poor, steals a bride-to-be and impregnates her, has to flee the village, wins and rejects the love of a good woman, falls in with evil companions, including the be-tailed and be-snouted trolls who are atrociously if colorfully self-centered and sinful.

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At the end of Part One, Peer leaves to see the world. In Part Two, he is an entrepreneur who has made money in the slave trade, had adventures in Arabia, been shipwrecked and not found happiness or self-awareness. These stretches are Ibsen at his heaviest, flailing away at targets more meaningful to the playwright than to most contemporary viewers.

It took all of Thomas’ boundless energy and some wonderful staging by director Lamos and designer John Conklin to hold tedium at bay. They generally succeeded, and the shipwreck, played on billowing sheets of black plastic, is a small enchantment.

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Thomas’ passage from John-Boy to Peer Gynt ought to come as no surprise. He was, as he says, raised backstage if not born backstage. His parents were both ballet dancers with the Ballet Russe, Ballet Theatre and Alicia Alonso’s company in Havana. They later formed The New York School of Ballet. His mother, who danced as Barbara Fallis, is dead; his father, also Richard Thomas, still teaches and came to see “Peer Gynt.”.

“I actually grew up in an apartment on the 15th floor of a building in New York,” Thomas said. He appeared in summer stock before he was seven, in productions of “Anything Goes” and “Damn Yankees” at Sacandaga, N.Y. (“I’ve outlived the theater.”)

“My first grade teacher was a children’s agent on the side in a small way,” Thomas said, “and she told my parents I should go up for the part of John Roosevelt in ‘Sunrise at Campobello.’ ” He got the part, making his Broadway debut at just 7. (He is now 37.)

“Most nights I had to go right home after my scenes because there was school the next day. But I loved weekends because I could stay and take curtain calls with the cast. I loved that. The theater is wonderful, but the curtain calls are best.” (Thomas has been getting spontaneous standing ovations for “Peer Gynt.”)

Thomas was soon doing live television and, eventually, three soap operas, “As the World Turns,” “From These Roots” and “Flame in the Wind,” which, as Thomas says, “blew out.

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“I never studied, formally, but since I was always playing a child, I always had a mother or a father or both, and those actors were all terrifically helpful to me. I have a fantasy of giving a big party on an anniversary of some sort, and inviting a ll my mothers and fathers,” Thomas said.

He commuted to California to do episodic television. “In those days, they would fly you out and back to do a role. I can’t see them doing it any more.” Thomas didn’t intend to stay in Hollywood even when he came out to do “The Waltons.” “We were set for 13 weeks and I was going to wait and see what happened.”

What happened is, of course, part of television history. The show was a big hit. Thomas met his wife, Alma, a Los Angeles native, and bought a house. They have a son and triplet daughters. Some well-known orange juice commercials have provided nest eggs for the children.

“The Waltons” was a special experience of which Thomas remains very proud. “I loved doing it,” he said. “You had 11 actors who basically got along very well. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about Will Geer. He had such a gusto for work--goose-toe as he used to call it. Ellen Geer is still part of our family.”

He identifies the show, he says, with the American short story. “Each episode had the structure of literature. It had a unique integrity. I sometimes watch it now with the color turned off, and it’s amazing how much it looks like a true period piece.”

He was paid well for doing the show, but, Thomas says, “It was before the really scary amounts of money were being paid for doing episodic television. The real benefit for me after I left in 1976 was that it kept the jobs coming in.”

For Thomas, who lives modestly and inconspicuously--"I’m not very social in the Hollywood scene"--the work is what always has to matter most. “People will always have good reasons for you not to do something. The money’s wrong; it’s too much time, whatever. I know all that. What we have to do is make acting the one thing you can’t do without.”

He tries to do one or two television films a year to make it economically feasible for him to do stage work. (He is doing “Peer Gynt” for $500 a week, which is probably a 40th of what he earned for an episode of “The Waltons.”). But, he says, “Acting is a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it you lose it.”)

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Keeping the muscle toned, he does a phenomenal amount of work in the theater: the re-opening production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” at the Pasadena Playhouse, “The Seagull” at Circle Repertory in New York; three summers at the Williams-town (Mass.) Theatre Festival, doing Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” and other productions. At the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles he has done “Merton of the Movies” and Shaw’s “Saint Joan.”

His remarkable television work includes remakes of “The Red Badge of Courage” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.” He has done some impressive films, including Frank Perry’s steamy study of vacationing teen-agers, “Last Summer,” and “9/30/55),” James Bridges’ autobiographical remembrance of the death of James Dean. More recently, Thomas has found that the dramas of substance and issues to which he is drawn are produced on television more often than as theatrical films.

Not least he has done some prodigious feats of part-learning, of which “Peer Gynt” has to be the most testing. “I found out early that I had a gift for learning lines. But it was partly the way my parents taught me. They were strict, and perfectionists. I had to know my lines before I went off to do the job. I can still hear my mother saying, ‘Learn . . . Those . . . Lines.’ It’s no guarantee of results, of course,” he said, grinning.

The facility with lines has helped Thomas handle a vexing handicap: the gradual loss, which began six or seven years ago, of 50% of his hearing in both ears, a neurological decay that has finally been medically arrested.

“I’ve always liked to know my part before rehearsals begin,” Thomas said. “It’s better to learn than to learn and rehearse.” With his hearing problem (he wears hearing aids in both ears), it’s helpful if he can concentrate on seeing the other actors rather than refering to the script.

“Peer Gynt” was a special problem because the Hartford had commissioned a new translation, by Gerry Bamman and Irene B. Berman, and it was still receiving a final polish as rehearsals began. “It was like learning two plays at once anyway,” Thomas says. “And I was learning the last three acts while we were rehearsing.” There were, fortunately, six weeks of rehearsal.

“The thing about ‘Peer Gynt’ is that there aren’t any old familiar songs to help you along. When you do ‘Hamlet,’ you realize how much of it you know; it’s in your blood, almost.”

The new translation returned to Ibsen’s own rhyme scheme, which is a help, and the language itself was lively and contemporary although not jarringly colloquial, a refreshing change from some of the turgid earlier versions.

Given his dreams, Thomas would like to do more regional theater and see more interchange of the regional theater productions. “That’s where our national theater lies, in our regional theaters and their emergence over the last 20 or 25 years. Actors who hang around New York waiting for a hit don’t know what they’re missing, out there.”

A few weeks ago, Thomas’ wife and children came from Los Angeles to see him in “Peer Gynt.” “I asked the stage manager to find seats for the kids if he could,” Thomas said. In the opening scene, the lights go up to reveal Gynt in a slightly oversized old-fashioned crib, telling a Munchausen-like tall tale to his mother. “I opened my eyes and found myself staring right at my daughters in the front row. It was the best day I ever had in the theater.”


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