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John-Boy at Midlife

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IT WAS LIKE BEING IN A DREAM,” SAYS Richard Thomas. There, on a soundstage in Valencia, Calif., last month was the TV family he had last seen together 17 years ago, when Thomas amicably ended a five-year run as lumber-mill owner’s son—and aspiring author—John-Boy Walton. The Waltons carried on another four seasons without him, airing its last episode in 1981. Now, after carving out a career onstage—most recently in an acclaimed Washington production of Shakespeare’s Richard II—and in TV movies, Thomas, 42, was coming home again for A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion.

For this TV-movie sequel, set in 1963 (and airing Sun., Nov. 21, on CBS; see review, page 14), the Waltons’ Depression-era Virginia farmhouse had been so lovingly reconstructed, Thomas says, “it made me weep.” And, carrying “a few more pounds, a few more wrinkles,” he says wistfully, were John-Boy’s six younger siblings (Jon Walmsley, 37, Judy Norton, 35, Eric Scott, 35, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, 32, David W. Harper, 32, and Kami Cotler, 28); parents Olivia and John (Michael Learned, 54, and Ralph Waite, 65); and Grandma (Ellen Corby, 80, still partially paralyzed from the stroke she suffered in 1976). Only Grandpa Walton (Will Geer, who died in 1978) was missing. Thomas has kept in touch with most of his castmates. But seeing them reunited, he says, engendered “lots of crying and hugging and thinking how lucky we all were to still have each other.”

Sadly, in real life Thomas faces a far different holiday than the one he shares with his TV kin. After 17 years of what was, by all appearances, a happy, Waltons-solid marriage, Thomas’s wife, Alma, 46, a homemaker, has filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Richard declines to discuss the split, except to say, “Both of us are in the process of putting our private lives back together. I have a wonderful therapist.” And he and Alma, he says, “are communicating.”

Still, actor Bruce Davison, 47, a longtime friend of the couple’s, says, “He told me that he was shocked that she wanted to separate [in March 1992].” Says Alma: “I guess I shocked him. But if you are really in touch with your mate, you can see things are not right. I wasn’t very happy [in the marriage]. There is no [single] reason why one person’s needs get met and the other person’s do not.” But Richard, she adds, is “a good person,” and the separation is “amicable, thank goodness, because we have four terrific kids.”

Son Richard, 17, a high school senior, and triplet daughters Barbara, Gwyneth and Pilar, 12, sixth graders, stay with their father every other week when he’s in L.A. (Thomas, who moved out of the family’s hacienda-style Hollywood Hills home last year, lives in a rented house close by.)

Thomas says he didn’t have to learn the role of Mr. Mom. “I’ve always taken them to school, made breakfast, made dinner,” he says. In fact, he’ll be cooking a Thanksgiving turkey at his house. But he got an extended tryout as a single father last summer, when he and the children went to Washington for rehearsals of Richard II. For three weeks they all shared a rented Capitol Hill town house fitted with bunk beds. Now, says Thomas wryly, “I have enormous admiration for single parents.” Especially his wife. “I’ve got to get home and give Alma a break,” he said during his penultimate week in Washington, “because I’ve been gone two months. She needs some time off.”

His time spent in Richard II, meanwhile, was strangely liberating. “Richard’s letting go of his kingship, and I’m letting go of my entire domestic structure,” Thomas muses. “There’s pain involved in [a divorce]. You use that pain.”

Thomas’s performance has earned him some of the best reviews of his career. “He makes the part…distinctively his own,” wrote a New York Times critic, “with a fiery style that should rightfully banish forever the ghost of the gentle, fawn-faced John-Boy Walton.”

Exorcizing that ghost from the public’s memory hasn’t been easy. But his friends and colleagues have long appreciated the differences between man and John-Boy. His Richard II castmate Edward Gero lauds Thomas’s “great sense of humor,” and says that after the show Thomas sometimes shares a bottle of bourbon with the other actors as they dissect the night’s performances. Backstage, adds Thomas, “I’m very freewheeling and profane.”

But there is a part of Thomas that will always be claimed by Walton’s Mountain. Picking up the script at his first Walton Thanksgiving Reunion rehearsal, he worried if he could still play the character he thought he had given up long ago. But then, he realized, “you put on the clothes and rehearse the scene, and it was like I screamed after the [movie wrapped]: ‘John-Boy’s back!’ He’d been there all along,” says Thomas. “He’d never gone away.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

MARGIE BONNETT SELLINGER in Washington and VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles