‘The Waltons’: One Star Detailed How ‘There Hadn’t Been’ Any Roles like John-Boy Walton

by Suzanne Halliburton

Richard Thomas was the star of The Waltons. He played the oldest son and the show’s narrator. John-Boy told the story of his family to an American audience yearning for a simpler time.

He was the soulful writer, a character who came across as someone far more mature than a high school student. John Boy wanted to see life beyond Walton’s Mountain and forge an identity as someone besides the oldest of seven kids. Earl Hamner, who created The Waltons, based John-Boy on his own life.

And Richard Thomas told TelevisionAcademy.com that there hadn’t been a character like John Boy before. In too many shows before the Waltons came on the air with a Christmas movie in 1971, young male characters were one-dimensional. John-Boy had nuance. Thomas said he saw himself at times, then he witnessed someone else entirely.

“This was a kid who was different in his native soil,” Thomas said. “So that was very new, I would say, not that there weren’t sensitive male roles. But again, (The Waltons) was an ensemble show.. This was not like it was John Boy and everybody else. It was an ensemble. But it was from the point of view of the center of the story being told by him and his growing up and his telling of the story.

“In retrospect, that was very new,” Thomas said. “I don’t think there had ever been anybody quite like this. So the forging of a new kind of male at the heart of a television series in America, I was very grateful to be a part of that.”

But here’s the beauty of the John-Boy character. That person was a living, breathing real-life human. Hamner wrote about what he knew. That was his family. It was being John Boy.

“This was auteurism,” Thomas said of Hamner. “This was an autobiographical experience that was turned into fiction, first in his novels and then in the movie and then the series. So we were dealing with source material that came from a place of great integrity and authenticity.”

Before The Waltons, Richard Thomas Grew Up With Artsy Family

The sensitive side of John Boy felt very comfortable for Thomas. He said it was partly due to his growing up in an “artistic home.” His parents were both dancers with the New York City ballet. And they owned the New York Ballet School. If Thomas went home and told his parents he wanted to be a writer, they’d say sure. Part of the beauty of The Waltons was John Boy’s parents nurturing their son’s dreams.

The Waltons proved to be a terrific launch for Thomas’ career. He was attending Columbia when he earned the role. And he left school to become a full-time actor. Thomas won an Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Drama for playing John Boy. He was John Boy for 122 episodes before he left The Waltons. He also directed five episodes.

As an actor, he often went against the John Boy type. That’s probably why his career enjoyed such staying power. His last full-time role was in The Americans. He played a tough, FBI counter-intelligence investigator and supervisor.

And his family in real life was a large one. He’s the father of five children.

Here’s the rest of the interview: