Still John-Boy after all these years? Richard Thomas headlines production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ coming to Utah

The actor, now 71, embraces his early stardom on “The Waltons.”

(Julieta Cervantes | Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour) Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) in the courtroom.

Don’t be surprised if — or rather, when — someone calls, “Good night, John-Boy” to Richard Thomas at the end of his performance in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Eccles Theater.

Thomas himself won’t be surprised at all.

“Oh, they do it all the time,” he said. “They do it at every show I’ve ever been in.”

It’s a callback to his Emmy-winning role as the eldest son on the 1970s TV series “The Waltons,” a Depression-era family drama in which he played the family’s eldest son — John Walton Jr., aka John-Boy. Episodes ended with exterior shots of the Walton home as family members said good night to each other, ending with (or, at least, including) “Good night, John-Boy.”

And while many actors have been known to resent being identified with a TV role they left behind long ago, Thomas, 71, is not among them. He said he thinks the callback is “sweet” and said theatergoers “can do whatever they want as long as they don’t interrupt the performance. I mean, you don’t want somebody yelling it out in the middle of a scene, but that doesn’t happen. It’s usually at a curtain call. …

“I love it. I’m very proud of that show.”

He’s also proud of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which runs at the Eccles from Tuesday through Sunday, Sept. 6-11.

Thomas stars as Atticus Finch, a widower raising two children in 1930s Alabama. A lawyer, he’s assigned to defend a Black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman — but it’s Jim Crow-era in the South, and innocence may not matter.

(Julieta Cervantes | Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour) Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson, Finch's client who is on trial accused of assaulting a white woman, in the touring production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," adapted from Harper Lee's novel by playwright Aaron Sorkin.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Thomas said he jumped at the chance to star in the play.

“As far as accepting the role, I mean, come on. It’s Atticus Finch! Is that a real question?” he said with a laugh.

The character has become an icon through both Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel and the 1962 film adaptation, for which Gregory Peck won an Oscar. The current stage version, adapted from the book by Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin, made the prospect of playing Atticus even more appealing.

“He’s brought Atticus down off his pedestal,” Thomas said. “People say, ‘What does it feel like to play an icon?’ And, of course, you can’t. Icons are unplayable. Icons are constructs. They’re not real things. What you want to play on stage is a person.”

In Sorkin’s version, Atticus has “a very vulnerable and beautiful personal story, which is right in keeping with what happens in the plot. [Sorkin] hasn’t changed what happens, but he’s brought him down into the mix and into the community.”

Sorkin hasn’t just done that for Atticus, Thomas said, but for other characters: The Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia; the wrongly accused Tom Robinson; and Atticus’ children, Scout and Jem.

“They’re just flesh-and-blood people on stage,” Thomas said. “And then we deal with the larger issues of social justice and racial justice and family and childhood. But first you have to be looking at people you can relate to on stage. And that’s the brilliance of what he’s done.”

(Julieta Cervantes | Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour) Justin Mark as Jem, Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch, Melanie Moore as Scout and Steven Lee Johnson as Dill.

Recalling childhood memories

While this “To Kill a Mockingbird” is “very much the spirit of Harper Lee and the story and the time and the place and the people,” it is also “a beautiful story of childhood,” Thomas said. “People forget — it’s about remembering what happened when Scout was a child.”

Atticus’ daughter Scout is 6 years old when the narrative begins, and the story is told through her memories as an adult, as well as the memories of adult versions of Scout’s older brother, Jem, and their childhood friend, Dill Harris.

Sorkin, Thomas said, has “allowed Scout and Jem and Dill to tell the story. He hasn’t cast the roles with small children, but with young adults who are remembering … the story and telling the story at the same time. Which also makes it a purely theatrical experience.”

(Julieta Cervantes | Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour) Melanie Moore as Scout and Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch.

Still relatable today

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a 62-year-old novel about events in a fictional Alabama town almost 90 years ago, but it continues to resonate.

“It’s our story,” Thomas said. “And it’s not just our story about racial justice, it’s our story about how we reconcile our aspirations with the reality of our achievements or lack of them. Do we maintain our idealism, or do we become cynical once we see the way the world really works?”

It’s hard not to think of the events of 2020 — the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

“He wrote this play quite a while before 2020,” Thomas said. “He had all this on the page before any of that happened. … And I think he was trying to forestall pushback on certain things that are present in the original material — the whole idea of the white savior to whom everybody should feel grateful.”

Return to Salt Lake City

This will be Thomas first time back in Utah since he narrated the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s 2019 Christmas show. Which was, he said, “an experience not like any other. The scope and the majesty of it. It’s spectacle. And spectacle is what we do in theater.

“But for me, it’s the volunteerism. It’s the community spirit. It’s the vibe in the room — the whole sense of people coming together with shared dedication and pleasure and enjoyment and being there for each other and getting a job.”

This is Thomas third major tour — he previously starred in productions of “Twelve Angry Men” and “The Humans” — and, he said, it was somewhat surprising to discover how much he loves touring. “If you’re in the right show with the right people and a beautiful production and you know, and it’s all good, then it’s a fantastic experience,” he said.

It’s not that he spends a lot of time playing tourist in the cities the production visits. “It’s a big part and it’s a large show,” he said. “And so I have to be a lot more monkish in my habits.”

He did say he’s “very excited” to return to Salt Lake City. “I’m really looking forward to it. I had such a great time there, and it’s such a friendly place.”

(CBS) The cast of “The Waltons” (1972-91): Will Geer as Zeb Walton, Jon Walmsley as Jason Walton, Ellen Corby as Esther Walton, Ralph Waite as John Walton Sr., Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton, Mary Elizabeth McDonough as Erin Walton, Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton, Kami Cotler as Elizabeth Walton, Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, Eric Scott as Ben Walton, and David W. Harper as Jim-Bob Walton.

Still John-Boy after all these years

And chances are that he’ll be recognized as John-Boy Walton while he’s in Utah. There’s no sense of resignation about that, because he said he has no regrets about the role that made him a star.

“I have very happy memories and I’m very proud of what that show was, what it did for me and all that,” he said. “I have no problem with being associated with it.”

Not only are all nine seasons streaming on Amazon Prime, but episodes air weekdays at 11 a.m. on MeTV; 2 p.m. in INSP; and noon-3 p.m. and 9 p.m.-2 a.m. on the Hallmark Drama channel. Pretty much a day has not gone by since the series ended that it has been repeated someplace.

“The staying power is amazing,” Thomas said. " I remember being 21 years old on the set and we were all going like, ‘Well, are we going to get the second season of this? It’s so different from everything else on.’”

And “The Waltons” didn’t come roaring out of the gate. It started out with middling ratings, but rose steadily — overall it was No. 20 in its first season, and then No. 2 in its second season.

“Who would have thought that 50 years later this would be the story? I think it’s fantastic. I love being an old John-Boy,” Thomas said with a laugh. “It’s great. And I’m a grandpa now.”

Tickets for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

“To Kill a Mockingbird” runs Tuesday-Sunday, Sept. 6-11, at the Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, Salt Lake City.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. on Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets range from $45-$199, and are available at Broadway-at-the-Eccles.com, ArtTix.org, by calling 801-355-ARTS (2787) and in-person at the Eccles Theater box office and the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center at 2525 Taylorsville Blvd., Taylorsville.

For more information, go to www.tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com

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