BWW Interview: Richard Thomas Is a Happy Warrior in THE GREAT SOCIETY
Years before the first Christmas on Walton's Mountain, Richard Thomas was a 17-year-old taking in the shock and awe served up by the year 1968: the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the civil rights movement, the escalation of the Vietnam War.
These days, he's taking it all in again, as Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey in The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan, who continues his Broadway exploration of Lyndon Johnson's turbulent presidency that began in the Tony Award-winning ALL THE WAY.
Thomas' enormous challenge is to create a three-dimensional character despite Humphrey's limited speaking opportunities as foil to the larger-than-life LBJ, played by Brian Cox.
"He's a solid and clear presence," Thomas said of Humphrey. "For me, it's a memory play. I was 17 in 1968 and very aware of what was going on. This was my youth."
Thomas spent a lot of prep time researching the life of Humphrey, whose buoyant demeanor as he battled for liberal causes earned him the nickname The Happy Warrior. But most important, Thomas said, he was looking for an emotional connection to the character.
"I read about Humphrey's early life, to get a flavor of the man," he said. But, he stressed, "I'm not doing an impersonation; my aim is to recap a sense of his energy. He was a happy warrior with a strong conscience, optimism and energy."
A crucial element of portraying Humphrey, Thomas said, is the ability to listen attentively.
"I have to listen to Brian throughout the play," he said, "and you can't listen until you can hear. And you can't hear until you learn to relax. Then you're really listening and hearing."
It wasn't until after learning the play and getting through the rehearsal process that Thomas began to relax into his role.
"Once the play is up and running and things get internalized and resolved then you can listen and hear," he explained. "Brian has this mountain to climb each night and it's amazing what he accomplishes."
LBJ's presidential years after his 1964 landslide election are splayed out in the sprawling, densely populated tragedy of the Johnson administration. Fifty characters populate the drama, set in 24 locations. Bill Rauch, who directed ALL THE WAY, is back for the ride.
Thomas may not have a large speaking role, but his very presence reminds us that Humphrey's contributions to history span generations.
"What I found interesting about him isn't reflective in the sparse lines," said Thomas. "He's famous for his eloquence and dedication to liberal causes. He had a long, distinguished career in the Senate."
Humphrey was a lead author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and initiated the creation of the Peace Corps. He was an influential Democratic senator from Minnesota who ran for president in 1952 and 1960 before succeeding LBJ as vice president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After Johnson declined to run for re-election amid volcanic opposition to the Vietnam War, Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for president in 1968. He lost to Richard Nixon, who presided over the transition from the Vietnam era to Watergate.
Thomas has been a Humphrey enthusiast for decades. "I'm a big Hubert Humphrey fan," he said. "He was the classic liberal, admirable in a lot of ways, but it became tragic when he turned into the spokesperson for the war he opposed."
It was a life-changing period for the teen-age Thomas. "This is history that was a big part of my life," Thomas said. "Those were formative years, a tumultuous time when the country was poised to go off in different directions.
"There was so much controversy, it's always relevant to examine another period and this one was so radically divided," he said. The play reveals how difficult it was to get hot-button policies passed and laws enforced.
"As a citizen it showed me how complicated it was to get things done," Thomas said. "The play illuminates that time in history."
Humphrey's decision to support the Vietnam War was heartbreaking, Thomas said. "I love the scenes where he opposes the war so strongly. Those moments are extremely important to me," Thomas said.
"I'm sure he had regrets; if he had won the presidency he wouldn't have had to be the front man for the war," Thomas said.
Humphrey often spars with Johnson over policies and issues of importance."He has opinions of all this stuff. He is fully clear how he feels about Johnson's browbeating. J. Edgar Hoover drives him nuts. I think if audiences want to pay attention to Humphrey his POV is certainly on display," Thomas said with a laugh.
Settling into the show has been invigorating for Thomas.
"It's a wonderful show and the company is so terrific. I love these big ensemble shows," said Thomas whose Broadway career began at age 7 when he played a son of FDR in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO. He's been in other ensemble productions, including a 2017 Broadway revival of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU starring James Earl Jones.
Feedback from audiences has been telling. Cast members are able to read facial expressions and body language.
"I'm aware of the audience," Thomas added. "The fourth wall is a total illusion. I think most performers are aware, it's part of our job to know what the audience feels."
And often times the actors can tell how an audience is feeling through their noticeable reactions.
"We can see people because of the way the stage is lit, there's some spillage into the audience. You see people with quirks, wiggling feet, fanning themselves. It's not a distraction, it enhances the experience for me," Thomas said.
After the play's run, Thomas will star as Atticus Finch, in the national touring company of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
"I'm so excited about touring," he said. "I'm one of those crazy people who loves the road. I didn't know that until I went out with 12 ANGRY MEN. I love the sense of traveling, and we're doing something that goes way back. You pull into town, do your thing and go on to the next city."
Thomas hopes his portrayal will reveal Finch's parenting skills. "This is a very nuanced version of the story," he said. "He's muddling along and he knows somebody's got to get the ship on the right waters," Thomas said.
The native New Yorker (a surprise to many John-Boy fans) is looking forward to interpreting the role on stage."I'm used to playing big parts and I start as early as I can to memorize my roles before rehearsal. That's the residue of being a star character. You create an inner environment in which the role can gestate and then manifest. All the research creates an inner nest."
What advice would Thomas give now to his 20-year-old self about to embark on his biggest television role?
"I would give the advice that Steve McQueen gave: 'It's looking good, you're doing well, just don't buy everything you see."
The Great Society can be seen at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater through November 20.