Most of Richard Thomas’ fans remember him as John Boy Walton. Thomas first took the role in the 1971 made-for-TV movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. That holiday special laid the foundation for one of the biggest television shows of the 70s. Thomas was there for most of the show’s nine-year run. He left in 1978, six years after the series premiered. However, Thomas had a long acting career before that.
Richard Thomas started appearing in film and television roles in the mid-fifties. Then, he transitioned to the big screen in 1969 with Winning and would go on to appear in several more theatrical feature films. However, the most important of those was probably Red Sky at Morning from 1971. That film brought Thomas to the attention of Earl Hamner, the creator of The Waltons.
Back in 2017, Richard Thomas sat down with the Archive of American Television to talk about The Waltons and more. At one point during their interview, he discussed what made him want to play John Boy and how his film experience led him to the show.
Richard Thomas on Becoming a Walton
Richard Thomas was living in New York when his agent called him about The Homecoming. At that time, no one expected the Christmas special to become a series. They definitely didn’t see the success of the show coming. Thomas, however, did know who was playing Olivia Walton. That was enough for him. “All I knew is that it was with Patricia Neal,” he said. As a child actor, Thomas had worked with several great actors. He wanted to add Neal to that list. He saw that she was in the cast and was immediately ready to sign a contract.
Then, Richard Thomas said that he read the script for The Homecoming and that the part of John Boy was “fabulous.” Between the script and working with Neal, Thomas couldn’t walk away.
Richard Thomas went on to say that his film career led him to work on The Waltons. Earl Hamner saw him in Red Sky at Morning and immediately knew that he had found his John Boy. “He saw the movie, he wanted me, they sent the script. There was never any question about it that it was a fabulous part and a great script. It was really cool to be able to do this.”
Today, John Boy Walton is Thomas’ most memorable role. He’s proud to be recognized as John Boy. To him, that means that the show truly meant something to the people who watched it.
Unfortunately for Richard Thomas, Patricia Neal didn’t come back for the series. She played Olivia in The Homecoming and exited the role permanently. Actress Michael Learned took the part of Olivia Walton for the series and stayed on the show until it ended.