“The audience is talking about us but we’re also talking about the audience,” says Richard Thomas, currently starring as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.
The stage production, adapted from Harper Lee’s novel by Aaron Sorkin, is currently touring North America through 2024.
Thomas sees the stage experience as a three-fold encounter that encompasses what is happening on stage, what is going on backstage between the actors and technicians, and what is happening between the audience and the actors.
“When the intermission lights come up the audience talks about what they’ve just seen, and yet between the actors we sense the vibe the audience is giving off. We can feel the difference in reactions after they return for the second act,” says Richard in an interview with CathodeRayZone conducted the morning after the opening night performance at Houston’s Hobby Center where Mockingbird recently landed for a six-night stand.
Sorkin’s script uses the children as a kind of Greek Chorus who comment on the action while it’s happening. The play adheres to a classic form of storytelling. An act of comedy with a dash of tragedy followed by an act of tragedy sprinkled with comedy and concluding with a restoration of events back to normal.
Film and Stage
Starting with multiple roles as a child actor on Broadway before launching into movie and television roles as a young adult, Thomas is perhaps best known for his role as John Boy in 124 episodes of the hit 1970s television show The Waltons. Over the course of his career he has won an Emmy and been nominated for a Golden Globe, a Drama Desk Award, and a Tony Award.
Thomas has appeared in numerous films that have taken on their own status as cult favorites. The 1969 film Last Summer launched film careers for Thomas, Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, and Catherine Burns who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Thomas and Burns also worked a few years later on Red Sky at Morning.
“We had a special chemistry together,” says Thomas about Burns.
Another film Thomas made around that time, Cactus in the Snow, revolves around a soldier trying to lose his virginity before shipping out to Vietnam. “A very good, very modest movie,” says Thomas. “I don’t think it is available any more, you’d have to open up an archeological site to find it.”
Thomas also starred in the acclaimed version of All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by Delbert Mann. Mann was the first director to win an Oscar for his debut film. That film was Marty. All Quiet reunited Mann with Marty star Ernest Borgnine. Mann had a mentor relationship with Lewis Milestone whose version of All Quiet had won Best Picture in 1930.
“There was a real sense of filial piety from Mann to Milestone and the original material,” Thomas recalls. “Ernie Borgnine was a fantastic person to work with but war movies are hard to make. It was rough going at times.”
Battle Beyond the Stars put Thomas at the convergence of old school and new generation science fiction. The film was produced and co-directed by Roger Corman and displays the early prowess of James Cameron who provided production design and special effects.
“Roger was great with actors, he had real respect for them. And then there was Cameron in the shed in the lumberyard,” says Thomas.
Corman had purchased a lumberyard to shoot the movie at, and Cameron was making models. “There were film students practically sleeping on the set, making sets out of egg cartons, it was crazy fantastic,” says Thomas. “I loved making that film, it’s an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai written by John Sayles.”
Pacing on the road
The touring production of To Kill A Mockingbird keeps Thomas on the road. “The first leg of this tour goes until mid-summer and then we have a month off,” he says.
“Learning how to pace yourself is important in the long run but also important in any length of run, especially if you’re doing a big role,” says Thomas.
“You’re learning about yourself in rehearsal so then it’s not so much about pace.
“You really learn how to pace yourself when the play’s in production, the adrenalin is running, and you’re playing to a full house. If you’re a maximalist performer like I am, you learn to pace yourself within the performance itself,” adds Thomas.
“When you have the luxury of a long run you have an ongoing relationship with how you’re managing the challenges of the performance. I get to the theater early, I’m an older man now, I don’t do much, I have a monkish existence on the road,” muses Thomas.
Thomas recalls when he met Gregory Peck, who originated the role on film, when Peck would host readings at the public library in Los Angeles. “We weren’t friends but I engaged with him several times. He was a real gentleman, funny, just a terrific person.
“That’s not the Atticus we wanted. One of the things that’s so terrific about what Sorkin wrote was for the Attici players was taking them down off the pedestal,” says Thomas, making a plural adjective out of his character’s name.
This adaptation has had multiple actors in the lead role including Jeff Daniels on Broadway, Matthew Modine in the London production and now Thomas in the touring version.
“His idea about where he is, who he is, what he’s doing, his sense of community, his feeling of satisfaction in life is deconstructed. He doesn’t have much of a journey in terms of development in the course of the novel. I’m not saying it’s less good but it is a different kind of character who goes through a crisis and then has to figure out at the end of the play how he can build things back together,” concludes Thomas.