‘The Waltons’: Richard Thomas Explained Why He ‘Wasn’t Sure’ if He Wanted to Become John-Boy

by Suzanne Halliburton

Seems strange now. But can you imagine The Waltons without Richard Thomas as John-Boy?

Thomas played the oldest son on The Waltons from the first Christmas movie (The Homecoming) in 1971 through 122 episodes. He was 21 when he earned the full-time role in the series and 26 when he left his TV family.

Looking back, Thomas said he initially wasn’t sure if she should take the role. He said this in 2019 when he sat down with a reporter from Studio 10, an Australian morning talk show.

“I was doing movies at the time,” Thomas said of when he got the role on The Waltons. “I got lucky with a string of features and was sort of coming up. And I’d done a lot of guest star parts on TV.

“Being in a television series, believe it or not, at 21 was not something I necessarily felt I needed to do,” he said. “And I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do, which is a weird thing. And they sent me a bunch of scripts from The Waltons. They were such wonderful scripts and the part was so beautifully written in all of them. … There was no way not to do it.”

Richard Thomas Could Draw On Summer Life in Kentucky for The Waltons

Richard Thomas really didn’t have much in common with John-Boy Walton, the oldest son in the TV family. He thrived in Manhattan as a child in an arty family. Both his parents danced in the New York City Ballet. And ran their own ballet school. Thomas, before The Waltons, was a student at Columbia. However, as a kid, he did spend summers at his grandparents’ farm in Kentucky. So life in rural Virginia, albeit in the 1930s, wasn’t completely foreign to Thomas.

Earl Hamner created The Waltons, basing it on his own family experience. John Boy was Hamner. And Hamner played a role in casting the show. He said Thomas was a better John Boy than he ever was in real life.

“He was just perfect,” Earl Hamner said of Richard Thomas.

“I was most thrilled to get Richard Thomas for the role of John-Boy,” Earl Hamner said. “He’s a very intelligent actor. And he drew, I think, a great deal on his father’s upbringing on a farm in Kentucky.”

Thomas, meanwhile, lauded Hamner for the character’s authenticity.

“This was auteurism,” Thomas said during an interview with the Archive of American Television. “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.”

So in another words, Richard Thomas couldn’t pass up playing John-Boy on The Waltons.