Emmy Award winner Richard Thomas returns to Broadway as Paul Sycamore, the eccentric, firework-loving patriarch of Kaufman and Hart’s family comedy You Can’t Take It With You. In addition to the beloved stage and screen actor, the all-star cast currently includes Veep Emmy nominee Anna Chlumsky as his daughter Alice and the one-and-only James Earl Jones as his father-in-law Martin. Below, BroadwayBox chats with Thomas about the sweetest Waltons fan ever, his lasting memories of working with Jones in 1958 and his own parenting style.
1. How does your parenting style compare to that of Paul Sycamore?
In many ways I am Paul Sycamore; it’s a strange thing. The most beautiful thing about Paul is how much he loves his kids and family. No matter how distracted he may be by his enthusiasms, his love and acceptance of his children for who they are is probably his greatest asset as a parent, which is a very, very important thing. And I like to think that that’s the Paul Sycamore I’d always like to be.
2. You made your Broadway debut at age seven in 1958 with Sunrise at Campobello; what do you remember most distinctly about that experience?
One of the most exciting parts, and one of the main reasons that I was happy to jump into this play, is 50-something years ago, I joined the cast of Sunrise at Campobello, which James Earl Jones and I both made our Broadway debuts in. It’s a reunion that means a great deal to me. He was unfailingly kind and very generous to me when I was a small actor. To be back on stage with him after an entire career’s worth of decades is very exciting. I remember very vividly our entrance together because we’d prepare for it and play and laugh; and I know now what he was doing, he was creating an atmosphere of play in which we enter the scene. But probably the most vivid memory of that production on stage is that I was a schoolboy and had to go home after my part was done, but I remember the first time (it was a Saturday night) when I was allowed to stay and take the curtain call with the company. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
3. What’s the craziest thing a John-Boy Walton fan sent you?
There was a show early in the first or second season called “The Typewriter,” where John-Boy was trying to save enough money to purchase a typewriter, and we received a check in the mail from a very, very, very elderly lady in the south for $90, which was the price of the typewriter, with a letter for John-Boy saying, “I know you want to be a writer and this will be very helpful for you. Please accept this check and good luck to you.” She was about 90. And Earl Hamner sent her a letter back as John-Boy thanking her very much but he/I had been able to secure a loan and would have the typewriter without a problem and sent back her check. And he did it as not to break that bubble because it was so clear to her that John-Boy was a real person she cared about who needed this badly. That expression of genuinely caring for a character you’re playing on screen is one of the most extraordinary kinds of reactions an actor can get. It was very touching and meant a lot to me.
4. What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received from a fellow actor?
Many, many years ago I was at a screening at Freddie Fields house in Hollywood and I met Steve McQueen. And I had just made a couple of movies and was doing well and starting to get some attention, and he said to me, “The only thing I could tell you kid is don’t buy into everything you see.” And of course I did; I paid no attention to him at all, and of course he was right. Most of the advice you get from seasoned older professionals comes from experience and is well-worth heeding.
5. Let’s play the desert island game, if you could only have one of each on a desert island with you:
Album: It’s either going to be jazz, rock 'n' roll or classical music; I’m going to go with Das Lied von Der Erde with “Song of the Earth” by Gustav Mahler. But also Jimmy Hendrix's first album and Miles Smiles by Miles Davis, and being a greedy cast away, I’d take three albums and shove them into one jacket.
Film: Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)
Book: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Ingredients for a meal: I would say it would have to be my mother’s picadillo from Cuba, which she learned to make when she and my father were dancing in Havana. It became a staple meal of ours and it’s probably the most nostalgic meal I make.
See Richard Thomas in ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ at the Longacre Theatre through February 22, 2015.