‘The Waltons’ Star Richard Thomas Once Guest Starred on ‘Bonanza’

by Craig Garrett

To generations of classic tv fans, Richard Thomas is John-Boy on The Waltons, but he guest starred on the iconic Bonanza first. That’s right, Thomas made an appearance at the Ponderosa in 1970. He played the antagonist in a season 12 episode titled “The Weary Willies.”

In this episode, a group of impoverished, ragged wanderers known as the “Weary Willies” settles down in Virginia City, much to the town’s discomfort. The Willies, some of whom deserted their regiments during the Civil War and have long hair, would rather play music and spread a message of peace than work hard. Richard Thomas plays Billy, a cocky young member of the Willies.

The episode begins with Billy performing and strumming his guitar to his pals by a river bank on the Ponderosa. The melancholy song “Blood Brothers” represents the Willies’ closeness, complemented by folk songs that add to the narrative. However, Thomas didn’t perform the song himself. The “Blood Brothers” song was written by Owens “Boomer” Castleman. It’s performed by David Rose and his orchestra. The lyrics are sung by Michael Martin Murphy.

Richard Thomas plays a character in stark contrast to John-Boy on Bonanza

It’s interesting seeing Richard Thomas portray a character so different from John-Boy. Billy is overconfident, forward with ladies, and work-shy. He’s also loyal and disarming. The other Willies have a comparable mentality in which they want to enjoy their lives without working full-time. This is despite the fact that several of them have excellent talents. As a result, many people view them with hostility and suspicion.

The Cartwrights aren’t thrilled about the stragglers’ presence. Still, they make an effort to tolerate them by allowing them to establish a camp on the Ponderosa. Angie, a city girl who is infatuated with guitar-playing hobo Billy, is the Willies’ only other ally. However, when Angie is raped one night on her way home from their camp, residents form a vigilante group and target the most apparent suspects: The Willies.

The episode punches out on an emotional note, flexing Richard Thomas’ acting chops

The concluding scene is an emotionally stirring one. Ben and Joe show up at the incinerated camp to bump into a very disheartened Billy. Even though Ben endeavors to convince Billy that running away from the world is not a solution, Billy cannot receive Ben’s notion that people have to stay in society to better it. Richard Thomas stretches his acting chops here, showing a myriad of emotions.

Billy puts on his dead friend’s hat and says goodbye to the Cartwrights, walking down the road by himself with “Blood Brothers” playing in the background. The viewer gets a sense that Billy won’t make it very long, either mentally or physically. It’s a sad but excellent ending that feels real.

Eagle-eyed fans of The Waltons might notice another notable actor. Richard Thomas’s love interest is played by Lee Purcell in “The Weary Willies.” The two actors would appear together again in a 1975 episode of The Waltons titled The Wing-Walker 1975. Purcell would, once again, fill the role of Thomas’ love interest.