Doing a little bit of research on Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed can make for a fun, nostalgic afternoon. They are two of television’s most recognizable faces of the last half century.
Thomas, a Tony Award nominee last year and an Emmy Award winner for his role as John-Boy in the popular series “The Waltons,” from the 1970s, hasn’t stopped working as an actor since he made his Broadway debut at the age of 7. Reed, meanwhile, along with working in prominent films such as “Kindergarten Cop” and “The Right Stuff,” has been all over television in a variety of roles since 1976, including playing Amy Poehler’s mother in “Parks and Recreation” from 2009-2012.
This week, the two actors are back on the stage — where it all started for them — in the national touring production of Stephen Karam’s Tony Award winner from 2016, “The Humans,” through Sunday at Proctors.
They sat down with the Gazette for 45 minutes earlier this week to talk about their long and distinguished careers.
Question: What attracted you to “The Humans?”
Pamela Reed: It’s the writing. Steve Karam’s work is incredible. He’s an articulate, great voice in the American theater and I’m much more than pleased to be just a part of what I think is the beginning of an extraordinary career. He has written some things prior to “The Humans” that are wonderful, but I’m happy to be a part of what I assume will be his profound journey as a writer.
Richard Thomas: It starts with the words. He’s an extraordinary, gifted writer, and all of the roles are great parts. You know you’re going to have happy actors because everybody gets to play a wonderful role. It’s a beautiful piece of ensemble writing and it’s a great look at human beings and all that we have to deal with.
Q: Is your first priority now the stage, or your film and TV career?
PR: Your question alone is so indicative of how the different options in a career are viewed in the U.S. as opposed to Europe and other parts of the world. There, an actor can move from film to TV to theater, going back and forth all the time. It’s considered the arc of your career. But, because of the 3,000 miles in the U.S. between L.A. and New York, you’re considered either a stage actor, or a television and film actor. I went to New York and got my start in the theater, and then I went to L.A. and started doing television and film. Now I’m back east doing theater, and fortunately going back and forth is a lot easier than it used to be.
RT: When I was a kid, it was starkly divided. You were either a New York actor or a Hollywood actor. In L.A., if you had a New York actor coming in for casting, you were thinking they were going to have this weird way of doing things. But I think that distinction is gone. I think it’s long gone. Pamela and I are lucky to have worked in all three mediums. One of the great things that happened for New York theater actors was that Dick Wolf started doing a series [“Law & Order”] in New York, and that kept you in the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] health insurance. Now, every other TV show is shot in Chicago.
Q: Pamela, you had “The Long Riders” and “Melvyn and Howard” both came out in 1980, your first two big movies. What do you remember about them?
PR: I worked on “Melvyn and Howard” first, but I didn’t have a great time shooting that film, and I didn’t feel real comfortable. But I loved working on “Long Riders” with all those brothers [The Carradines, the Keaches and the Quaids]. David Carradine was just an absolute gem. He was a dreamboat of a guy. I played a whore, Belle Star, and had a series of nude scenes. I had actually turned down the film twice because I said I would never do anything like that.
The third time I checked with my dad. He read the script and said, ‘Well, the nude scenes don’t seem gratuitous.’ He told me it was up to me and that I had to decide. I was shocked my father said that. Then [director] Walter Hill called me and said, “I promise you I won’t embarrass you, and I promise you I won’t ask again.” There was something about his sincerity, so I took the job. So, while they were building this special box set for the scene, David Carradine, who was in the scene with me, took me for a walk around the lot. He was so nice. I will love David for that, and Walter Hill, too.
Q: Richard, what was it that made John-Boy and “The Waltons” so popular?
RT: There was a paradigm shift with that show in terms of male, leading roles in a TV series. It wasn’t your typical, young male star of a TV show. I wasn’t beautiful, I wasn’t fancy, but the character was a sensitive type, which was kind of counterintuitive at that time. It was new to TV. I think it reached a lot of young men who weren’t seeing that part of themselves reflected on TV. It made it OK to care. I left the series after five seasons, but I came back to visit and did some of the reunion shows. I wanted to make sure people didn’t think I left because I was unhappy or didn’t like the show.
Q: Did you ever feel that being so closely associated with the role of John-Boy hurt your career?
RT: All of us who are lucky enough to be successful as actors are that because of something we’ve done. It’s what launches you. You want every actor to have that thing, so it will always in some measure cling to you. So why not enjoy it. Why fight it. It’s a good thing, and people are allowed to love you for whatever reason they want to. It’s not up to you.”
Q: Pamela, what do people mostly seem to recognize you from?
A: My “Waltons” is “Kindergarten Cop.” That’s the thing that always comes up, and it was a blast. It was also great working on “The Right Stuff” with [director] Philip Kaufman. It’s a great film with long legs. I was talking to Richard about the perks of being an actor, and my best perk was when Chuck Yeager came up to me when we were shooting “The Right Stuff” and said, “Hey Pam, you want to go for a ride?” So I flew with Chuck Yeager. That was fun, and also working with Bob Altman and Garry Trudeau on “Tanner ’88” was a great experience.
Q: Richard, other than “The Waltons” and some of your Broadway work, what are you most proud of about your career?
RT: I grew up on Broadway, went to Los Angeles for the series, and I guess coming back to New York after “The Waltons” and doing a great show like the “Fifth of July” on Broadway was very important to me. I wasn’t sure how I would be welcomed back to New York, but it was successful and I was back home. I think doing “All Quiet on the Western Front” was also a very important movie for me to make. I loved it. I also did “Hamlet” on stage, and, I want to say this in the most modest way possible, but doing “Hamlet” for the very first time is one of the most terrifying nights in an actor’s life. It’s a wonderful feeling getting through that first night, and then you say to yourself, “How can I make this better?”
More from The Daily Gazette: