By RORY LANCE
I remember watching an episode of Night Gallery with my mom, a story about a medieval “sin-eater” who was invited to a funeral banquet to eat from the table of special foods that represented the sins of the departed one. It featured Geraldine Page as the sin-eater’s wife and a young actor named Richard Thomas as her son, who is unwittingly tricked into taking his father’s place. My mother was not a theatrical person but had an innate sense about talent after spending the entire Great Depression at the movies. She turned to me after the episode and said, “That kid’s great!” and indeed he was. Richard Thomas went on to an illustrious career on stage and screen, and he created one of the most beloved characters in television history: John-Boy Walton.
After that Night Gallery episode, I became a devoted fan. I saw Richard Thomas on Broadway in The Front Page, An Enemy Of The People, and Incident At Vichy. I thought he did brilliant work in many television films, including The Red Badge Of Courage and All Quiet On The Western Front. But in all the years of enjoying his performances, I had never—are you sitting down?—I had never watched one single solitary episode of The Waltons, Earl Hamner Jr.'s semi-autobiographical drama about a Depression-era family in rural Virginia. That is, not until this year. The year of pandemic. The year that The Waltons saved me from my own personal Great Depression.
“Shelter in place!” was the instruction, and I took it seriously. One thing that might maintain my sanity through this once-in-a-century challenge would be a rigid schedule, even if it meant regulating the most mundane activities, like meals and television. Noon would be my lunchtime, and as I turned to MeTV, the classic cable channel, I was introduced to my very first episode of The Waltons. "The System" was from midway into season 3, as John-Boy had to defend a college classmate from an accusation of cheating. The episode was meaningful, the performances dynamic. It was about the fictional John-Boy, but it was also about me and people I knew. It was human.
As I quarantined alone in my apartment, I got a reprieve each day at noon. I was outdoors among fresh air and mountain greenery. I was with family. I had siblings and parents and grandparents once again. I was, in fact, not alone. Expert writing and powerful performances ensured at least one edifying and entertaining hour each day amidst my Covid solitude. At the heart of each episode was the central character of John-Boy Walton and the masterful talent of Richard Thomas.
Prior to John-Boy, you could count on most television heroes to act exactly the same in each episode. For twenty-one years, Matt Dillon tried his best to give that week’s Gunsmoke antagonist a chance to step back and reconsider, and when they didn’t, he shot them. But John-Boy was different. He wasn't the catalyst for a formula, but a participant in real life. Sometimes he had the answers and knew he was right, but sometimes he was helpless and at a loss. Often he was thanked for his help, but just as often he had to beg someone’s forgiveness. You know, just like a real human being.
For a television show whose writing was so beautifully crafted, some of Richard Thomas’s most powerful moments came when he didn’t have a single thing to say. He is one of those rare actors whom the camera is able to penetrate. Without a word spoken, you know exactly what he is thinking and feeling. This quality was never better demonstrated than in the episode “The Firestorm," in which John-Boy feels his neighbors need to understand what is happening in Nazi Germany. He decides to print excerpts from Mein Kampf in his newspaper. The hometown community, led by Reverend Fordwick, is very much against disseminating Nazi hate speech. In a blistering Sunday sermon, the minister lets John-Boy know exactly how he feels without ever using his name. John-Boy is in church with no way to respond. All he can do is sit. Without a word, Richard Thomas shows us that John-Boy’s blood is boiling. Denied most every tool normally at an actor's disposal, Thomas uses the only one remaining: the temperature of his blood.
Another moment that featured Richard Thomas’s unique gifts was in the episode “The Quilting.” John-Boy confronts his sister Mary Ellen about her refusal to be part of a family tradition, the making of a community quilt for a young woman coming of age. Mary Ellen feels it is a dated custom that only advertises a young girl for the matrimonial market; she dreams of becoming a doctor. Her grandmother has gone to great lengths to arrange this celebration, but Mary Ellen rebels and runs off to sulk in the barn. In a brief, simply-written scene, John-Boy confronts his sister, saying that some things we do for others, and they can be more important than what we may want for ourselves. I don’t think the scene is longer than three minutes, but in that short time Richard Thomas gives a master class in playing the subtext. “Do it for your grandmother” is basically all the script page says, but we watch John-Boy go from anger to understanding, from annoyance to love, from frustration to empathy. It was as perfectly played as any three minutes of television I've ever seen.
I've been a Player for fifteen years, and I know that Richard Thomas is also an active and devoted member, but I have never seen him at the clubhouse. This is probably just as well. If I could ever summon up the courage to thank him for the help The Waltons gave to my pandemic survival, I would probably just blather on and make no sense. But his work helped me through a year of anxiety and loneliness fully as much as anything I myself did. I so regret that for fifty years I had never welcomed The Waltons world into my own. But as Grandpa Walton might say, “Life has a funny way of sending us the things we need, when we need them the most.”
Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.