Actor Richard Thomas might be best known for his Emmy-winning role as John-Boy in the iconic 1970s television series “The Waltons.”
Now he reprises another Depression-era role: Atticus Finch, of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This time, however, he’s not in front of a camera. He’s on stages around the country.
Finch is a small-town Alabama lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman in the 1930s. Thomas plays the man — long beloved, morally complex — in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of the novel. The play has kicked off a national tour, with an early stop in Boston.
For Thomas, the play is relevant to the racial and social justice movements of the present day but it also speaks more broadly to the themes of aspiration, belief and parenting.
“Of course it's a play about social justice,” he says. “But it's also a play about raising children. It's a play about the loss of innocence and what it means to be a parent and how you bring your children into the reality of the world with all of its failings.”
He says the play depicts the loss of innocence that happens not just for Scout, Finch’s daughter, but also Finch himself.
“Everybody is going through a crisis between what they think the world should be and what they find out it really is,” he says.
On the first time he read Harper Lee’s novel
“I think I was in middle school. And that's right around the time that young people are starting to develop a sense of justice and community and their place in a society. So my sense of justice and injustice was no different from my classmates. I mean, it was very acute. And so when I read the book, I was shocked by it and I was amused by it because there's a lot that's very funny in it. It was a great reading experience.
“But I'll tell you something: most people who have read this book as young people really would get a lot out of it if they read it again as adults. I read it a second time just to prepare for [Aaron Sorkins’] adaptation. And it's an even richer experience to read it as an adult, so I really recommend that.”
On his approach to playing an iconic character
“You can't play an icon. It's not possible. And so you just have to play a person, and you have to bring yourself to it, which is all you can bring. And you want to find the journey, and [there is] this beautiful, beautiful journey for Atticus in the course of the play. ... Greg Peck's performance [Peck played Finch in the 1962 film adaptation] is fantastic and the novel is fantastic, but this is a piece of theater. And our job is to bring you a theatrical experience, and it's a slightly different thing.”
On the attraction of coming back to the stage, after a long career in television and film, as well as in theater
“I love playing in the theater as most of us do, and I also happen to be one of the actors who loves to tour. I did my first tour of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ about 10 years ago. I'd never toured before. I'd always wanted to, because it's such an important part of the history of acting. And I just fell in love with it, so I was excited about this production because this is the perfect play to take around the country. First of all [because] everybody knows it. But also to get different responses from different regions about the issues that the play raises.”
On whether the play, set in 1934 Alabama, has an urgent message for the present moment
“The answer is yes. Mockingbird holds the mirror up to America in many ways. It's a portrait of us, and it's a portrait of our aspirations and how close we can come to achieving them and how good they are, how worthy they are. And also, it's a portrait of our shortcomings and, you know, our besetting sins as a nation, and those things are in beautiful balance. I think these days, especially with everything that is happening across the country with social justice and racial justice in particular, although ‘Mockingbird’ really is relevant at any time … I think it does bring a particular charge.”
On how the stage production differs from the book
“Aaron [Sorkin] and Bartlett Sher, our wonderful director, together in their collaboration, they have sort of come out in front of some of the issues in the book that need addressing and interrogation. You know, the white savior theme. Atticus being this white knight in shining armor who comes in. The sense of his frailty as a man and his humility as a man is very, very important. ... The man is not heroic, he's simply trying to do the right thing like so many of us are.”
On what he hopes the audience gets out of the play
“The number one thing for me is that people should go into the theater and have an experience which only theater can provide and which will stir their emotions, so they can think about things and sit with the feelings that the play hands them. But also to enjoy the humor of the play, to enjoy the warmth of the play and to really feel a sense of connection with the story so that when they carry their feelings out into the world to discuss with other people, that they bring some of the values of the play out into the world with them. … I'm looking for people to have a sense of empathy, which is what the theater at its best provides for us.”
On Atticus Finch’s belief that there is good in everyone.
“His fundamental humility and respect for other people is, for me, his most beautiful aspect as a human. Atticus in this adaptation comes up against the difference between his aspirations and his ideals about what people are and the reality that he encounters, and he has to learn that it's OK, even if the world does not conform to the ideas you have. … Those aspirations are still the way to live. That belief in fundamental human goodness and respect for others and the ability to listen to others is something that can carry us forward. ... In the middle of all of these disappointments and all of these terrible twists and turns that life takes, if we can maintain that fundamental belief in human goodness and community, we can move forward with some hope.”
This segment aired on April 11, 2022.