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Richard Thomas
Photograph: Courtesy of the artist Richard Thomas

Race and Richard Thomas

The veteran actor talks about David Mamet's top-secret new play.

By David Cote
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Richard Thomas’s claim to fame is still John-Boy on the ’70s TV series The Waltons, and he’s currently the voiceover guy on numerous Mercedes-Benz commercials. But the 58-year-old thespian has had a distinguished stage career, including gigs with Edward Albee and avant-god icon Robert Wilson, and plenty of Broadway credits. This fall, the gentlemanly actor marks another milestone: his first David Mamet play. In November, Thomas joins James Spader, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington in Race, Mamet’s latest work. The new swearfest is about two lawyers—one black, one white—working on a racially charged case. (We know that much only because gossip columnists leaked some hints.) TONY phoned Thomas to chat about the project, still top secret.

I don’t want to make you date yourself, but I read that you just observed, um, a half century acting on the stage.
That was last year, but I’ll celebrate it for another year. If you’re celebrating 50 you might as well let it go on for a while, right? I’m not celebrating with any particular ceremony, but I’m appreciative I’ve been able to do it for so long.

You started as a kid. Did you learn on your feet?
I was the child of ballet dancers. I grew up backstage, primarily at the New York City Ballet. When I was six, they were in upstate New York doing summer-stock productions, and they needed some children to do a scene. So I did it and loved it. I came back to school that fall and my first-grade teacher happened to be a children’s agent. She took me to an audition for Sunrise at Campobello [a Broadway production that opened January 30, 1958] and that was it. That was my first Broadway show, and it was James Earl Jones’s, too. It’s kind of an apprenticeship-type situation. You can learn a lot. Being a child actor, you’re always playing somebody’s child, and I had a succession of wonderful parents.

And now Race.
My first Mamet! I told David that—although I thought it was a wonderful play—the reason I was doing it was so that when people said, “Richard Thomas isn’t a Mamet actor,” I could tell them to go fuck themselves!

So what can you tell me about it?
It’s not Mamet lite. As in other Mamet plays, it’s very corrosive and, I’d say, tough on the subject of race. We all appreciate light moments. But this play is rigorous. With the election of Barack Obama, everyone heaved a sigh of relief. But David’s play says: “Look, these issues go way, way deeper. These issues are not only endemic to our society but to the way people look at each other.” His plays are so often about transactions. It may be about money, or sexual relations, or political. But they’re always about how we work together. He uses race relations as the fulcrum, the putative topography of the play. A lot of the nation’s unconscious will be given voice in the play.

Who’s your character?
I’ll be in a suit. [Laughs] Like I was in Democracy. I play a wealthy guy. It’s hard to talk about my character, since the story turns on what he does. He’s a rich and powerful man in trouble. It’s awkward for me. I was telling [producer] Jeffrey Richards, “I’m used to being really forthright in interviews.” But I guess thematically is the best way I can talk about it. I just hope I’m not sounding coy, because that’s not my way. I tend to blurt. So I’m having to be really careful here.

How are you going to prepare technically for it?
Like Edward Albee and Terrence McNally, David is a language playwright. He has such a distinctive voice. The sense of rhythm, cadence, intention. I can’t wait to be involved in the chamber music of the text. And since he’s directing it, I’m sure he’ll be very clear about how he wants this to sound. If it’s really going well, he takes you where you don’t want to go. That’s a good thing. That quality of danger and challenge is really exciting.

Race starts previews Nov 16 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and opens Dec 6.

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