John-Boy on fame: Richard Thomas' triumphs and tribulations
The actor faced an identity crisis after The Waltons.
"When you're victorious," Richard Thomas says, "you feel you've been kissed by some powerful, invisible influence and you want to turn the other cheek and say, 'Kiss me! Kiss me again!' but you wonder... is victory just a matter of luck?"
Richard Thomas was 29 when he spoke to the Lancaster New Era, but his words betray a weariness much older than his years. By the time of that 1981 interview, Thomas was a boyish television mainstay for nearly a decade as John-Boy on The Waltons. But behind his fresh face, Thomas had a savviness that kept him from fully enjoying the fruits of his labor. Even as a young man, Richard Thomas understood that he was in a fickle industry that could abandon him anytime.
"My golden fear is that one morning I'll wake up, walk into the bathroom, look into the mirror and, oh God, my face will have fallen apart. In one moment, sometime during the night, my face disappeared."
Youthful success is frequently a recipe for disaster. Lots of Thomas' peers would not sustain a career into adulthood. Perhaps Thomas was reflecting that when the Lancaster New Era interviewed him. His words all seemed flecked with fear and anxiety. Instead of expressing pride or gratitude, he talks primarily about how it could all go away.
"I've had no major disappointments. Victory is like a windfall. Your work is done, and there is a reward, all these good things come shining through. But victory has its disappointments... For a while, the idea of victory buoys you... But then, you wonder, can the victory sustain you indefinitely?"
Even in the middle of a hit Broadway production, Richard Thomas was unable to free himself of self-doubt. There was a need to prove himself. In the interview, he asks rhetorically, "Will John-Boy become a major Hollywood actor? Will John-Boy prove himself on Broadway?" It's interesting to note that he uses the name of his character on TV, not his own. Even though he was beginning to make progress in distancing his career from The Waltons, Richard Thomas clearly felt tethered to John-Boy.
"I can't hit my head on the wall because John-Boy was the single most important influence in my career. Still," he says, "it is one of my continuing frustrations."