‘The Waltons’: Show Creator Earl Hamner Jr. Said Richard Thomas Was Better John-Boy Than He Was in Real Life

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Earl Hamner Jr. wrote his story. And then, he had the luxury of choosing which actor would play him on The Waltons as well as those who would portray his family.

Hamner Jr. wrote the book Spencer’s Mountain in the early 1960s. It was a work of fiction, of course, but based on Hamner’s life growing up in Schuyler, Virginia.

So, Earl Hamner Jr. allowed himself to pick the best version of himself. He said he loved all the child actors who auditioned. But he couldn’t pass on Richard Thomas for the character. Like Hamner Jr. was in his family, John Boy was the oldest of the Walton kids.

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

Hamner’s first project from his book, Spencer’s Mountain, was a movie by the same name. It had an all-star cast. Henry Fonda starred as the Clay Spencer. Maureen O’Hara was his wife. And James MacArthur played the character, Clayboy. They lived in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

For television, Hamner changed the name and the show’s geography. And we agree with his choice with Richard Thomas, who was 20 when The Waltons’ pilot was a two-hour Christmas movie in 1971. Thomas won the Emmy for Best Actor in 1973.

“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.”

Earl Hamner and Richard Thomas did an interview with the Archives of American Television. It was a love fest between the writer and the actor.

“This was auteurism,” Thomas said. “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.”

Richard Thomas described John-Boy as being “at home in the bosom of his family, in the culture in which he’s growing up and fully a part of it. But also apart from it. He’s not only in it, he’s observing it.”

John Boy narrated the family stories, as the Waltons lived through the Great Depression and through World War II. Earl Hamner often kicked off and ended each episode, giving the show even more authenticity.

After The Waltons, Earl Hamner created another family drama. But it was opposite of the Waltons. Falcon Crest was about a multi-generational family operating their wine business in California.

Hamner died in 2016. He was 92.

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