Richard Thomas: Playing the 39th President
The actor Richard Thomas knows a little about icons. He’s pretty close to being one himself.
After all, he became something of an icon in the 1970s, when he played John-Boy Walton, Jr., on “The Waltons.”
The hugely popular television series – about a big family growing up during the Depression and World War II in Walton’s Mountain, Va. – ran for nine seasons. It’s still remembered for its closing good-nights among family members, as in “Good night, John-Boy.”
To this day, he remains John-Boy to thou- sands of fans, even if he’s in his early sixties now. He’s not bothered by that. “I call it the gold- en pain,” Thomas said in a telephone interview.
John-Boy may have become an iconic fictional figure. However, playing a living former president of the United States, that’s something else again.
Thomas will be playing President Jimmy Carter in the world-premiere production of “Camp David” by Lawrence Wright, directed by Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith. “Camp David” will run Mar. 21 through May 4 in Arena’s Kreeger Theater.
Thomas will be joined by veteran stage and screen actor Ron Rifkin as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Tony Award nominee Hallie Foote as first lady Rosalynn Carter.
Named for the presidential country retreat near Thurmont, Md., “Camp David” centers on the events and difficult negotiations surround- ing the talks held there in September 1978. The resulting Camp David Accords, the ground-breaking peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, are still in place 35 years later.
The historic peace treaty remains the singular, uncontestable achievement of the Carter Administration. While it was not enough to help Carter earn a second term, it was the kind of accomplishment that gave him a prominent role as a former president. It echoes throughout Washington, where many players from the Carter Administration, and the administrations before and after, are still active. We reached Thomas in a break between rehearsals. His voice still sounds as youthful as it did during a 1987 Georgetowner interview, when he was in town to play another historic figure in “Citizen Tom Paine.” “Gosh, that was a long time ago. Wasn’t it?” he said. “A lot of years.”
“Playing a living president, that’s quite a challenge,” Thomas said. “I read the script and found it impressive. It was an engaging script, a theater piece about real events, solidly grounded. And here I am, and here we are.”
“People forget what happened, and most people don’t know the details,” Thomas said. “It was a very human process among three men who had ideas and ideals, a big sense of themselves, and it was extremely difficult. It was dramatic.”
President Carter is a public figure about whom people have strong feelings, one way or another. Here in Washington, Carter’s involvement in the talks was one of those occasions when news of historic proportions became local news, too.
“You have to avoid certain things,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to watch the accent, the things you’re overly familiar with. You can’t put him on a pedestal or you’ll be playing a statue. You can’t slip into stereotypical things or try to do an impersonation. It’s a little nerve-wracking, initially. In the end...I try to think of him, not as president of the United States, but as a character in a play, because that’s what I do.”
It is expected that the Carters will be in attendance at the official red carpet premiere on Apr. 3. “Well, that could be a little extra pressure, I guess,” he said. “That awareness will no doubt add a little to the night.”
“Camp David” is produced by Gerald Rafshoon, White House communications director in the Carter administration, who brings intimate knowledge along with access to tapes made by the president during the negotiations.
Playwright and screenwriter Wright is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”
Thomas was excited to be back in Washington. “It’s such an unusual town, and I love working here,” he said. “It’s a great theater town.” He worked with legendary director Peter Sellars at the Kennedy Center in “The Count of Monte Cristo” and a trio of plays by Samuel Beckett. Thomas also played the title role in “Richard II” at the Washington Shakespeare Company.
Thomas and his wife, Georgiana Bischoff, have a large family with seven children, including triplet daughters from his first marriage. “They’re all grown up now,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest roles you can have, being a father and a parent.”
Ralph Waite, who played Thomas’s father on “The Waltons,” passed away Feb. 13. “It was a huge loss,” Thomas said. “He was like a second father to me. I lost my father last year.”
“Camp David” will run March 21 through May 4 in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater.