Richard Thomas is probably best known for playing John-Boy Walton on “The Waltons” in the 1970s. The show portrayed wholesome family values; not necessarily overtly religious, but it was the story of a kind, generous, loving family.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2016, Thomas spoke about what it was like having fans equate his character on “The Waltons” with who he was as a person. For context, he also talked about people assigning symbolism or cultural and religious significance to “The Waltons”. Usually, there was little to none.
“People wanted to use the show to illustrate a point about public decency or the way television should be,” said Thomas. “We all were offended and bristled at that kind of stuff. Because we were just about a family of people who was just trying to make it as a family in the society. We didn’t as a family – and Earl didn’t, as a writer – make us a symbol of anything other than what it takes to be a family.”
So when it came to his character, people assumed he was just like John-Boy. “I was a misbehaving young actor who had been an actor in New York,” he said, “I was the farthest thing from that kid. Inside, no, but my way of talking […] I cuss like a sailor, I was raised backstage. I had a whole other sensibility going.”
Thomas also commented about how times are different now with how people regard actors versus their characters. He continued, “And they always expect this thing of you, then, not so much maybe now. I think it was more naïve then about those projections.”
‘The Waltons’: Richard Thomas Talks ‘Defeating Expectations’
Thomas continued speaking on the subject. He said, “You try wherever you could to defeat those expectations to a point.” He then spoke of people approaching him and assuming he’s a certain type of person based on their experience watching him as John-Boy.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘My husband has modeled his life on who your character [was] and who you are,’ and ‘I’m sure you’re this way, you’re a good this, you’re a good that, you believe in this, you believe in that.’ It’s amazing what people impute to you based on the character you play. It’s crazy.”
These days, post-“Waltons”, we pretty much know not to equate someone with the character they play in movies or on television. Actors are their own people; they usually aren’t exactly like the characters they play. Now, we attribute that to really talented actors. They are able to disappear inside a character. We get lost in the character, but we know they’re not real. For some reason, people couldn’t do that with John-Boy.