Most viewers probably would not think of clean-cut actor Richard Thomas to play a "greasy meatball," the unkind phrase used to describe his current onstage alter ego, Günter Guillaume. The play in question is Michael Frayn's drama "Democracy," now on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Nevertheless, Thomas insists there are many elements of the character that are not unlike those of an actor and, as such, he is able to slip into Guillaume's skin far more easily than even he himself might have anticipated.
Guillaume was the East German spy who helped topple West Germany's Chancellor Willy Brandt (played on Broadway by James Naughton) in 1974, while unwittingly growing increasingly attached to his prey. He was simultaneously mole and confidante, betrayer and close friend. "Democracy" explores a curious relationship at the highest levels of government within the framework of a democratic society that is engaged in endless self-reinvention.
"Günter is always playing a role. He is duplicitous all of the time and constantly aware of how he's being perceived," says Thomas, a gracious and articulate 53-year-old New York City native, who is perhaps still best known as John Boy, the corn-fed youth in the popular 1970s TV drama "The Waltons."
"Günter's got that extra bit of self-awareness, that self-monitoring third eye. There is his duality of performance throughout the play," continues Thomas, who is talking with me in his dressing room before a performance. "Everyone sees him differently. To some, he's obsequious. To others, he's a chirpy little friend. And to still others, he's a 'greasy meatball' or just plain unctuous. But then, this play is about performance and identity. And that's what I can relate to as an actor. There is a constellation of psychological truths that I can relate to."
Nevertheless, the challenges are daunting, not least "finding out how not to work too hard," notes Thomas, who is on stage for most of the play's nearly three-hour running time. "Günter propels the story forward, serving as host to the audience along with playing the central character in the unfolding events."
It is technically and physically draining. So, too, are the character's complex inner struggles, which can only be expressed with restraint, given the dramatic and verbal structure of this play.
"On some level, this play is expository and minimalist," comments Thomas. "It's a tightly woven matrix, not unlike all verse plays, which have repeated rhythms and cadences. The speeches are formal, not naturalistic at all. Yet we have to create living characters and find ways of expressing the characters' emotions within the dramaturgy."
Still, the larger question remains: How did Guillaume come to feel so close to—indeed, protective toward—Brandt, a man he was determined to destroy?
"Günter has allowed himself to be imprinted because he's impassive in his role with Brandt," says Thomas, admitting that in the beginning, he found the character a puzzler. "Günter moves towards becoming intoxicated by Brandt. It's a genuine affection and their relationship becomes symbiotic. It's a love story—sad, very sad."
In addition to his stint on "The Waltons" (1972-77), for which he won an Emmy Award in 1973, and appearances in more than 40 television movies, Thomas is a seasoned stage actor. He launched his Broadway career as a child actor in 1958 in "Sunrise at Campobello," and later (1965) was featured in "The Playroom." Other New York credits include "Fifth of July," "The Seagull," "The Front Page," "Tiny Alice," and, most recently, Terrence McNally's "The Stendhal Syndrome," in which he played a showy bisexual conductor. At the Kennedy Center's celebration of Tennessee Williams' work last summer, Thomas performed "A Distant Country Called Youth," a solo piece that details Williams' early years through his letters. He has also performed leading classical roles for such directors as Mark Lamos, Peter Sellars, Robert Wilson, Michael Kahn, and Peter Hall.
Thomas has not suffered from typecasting, despite his legendary John Boy gig. "It really did not get in the way at all, except maybe immediately following the series, when I wanted to play Studs Lonigan," a tough Chicago Irish-American working-class youngster, Thomas recalls. "They wouldn't think of me for that role. And for a while, I was mostly thought of for family and Christmas movies."
One can see why. Thomas is strikingly youthful-looking and wholesome in style. He is very much a family man, married to a "civilian," with whom he has one son, Montana. But theirs is a "blended" family, says Thomas. He has four children from a previous marriage, including triplets. And his current wife has two grown children from her past marriage. As Thomas describes it, the couple has a low-profile life, with an interest in tribal art, specifically Native American art of the Southwest and Northwest. Thomas sports a silver and turquoise bracelet.
He is also a poet, having published three books of poems: "The three books of poetry are out of print, but I think about going back to writing poetry every day." He is also, by his own account, a voracious reader of virtually everything.
Raised on the Upper West Side, Thomas grew up in a theatrical environment. His parents, ballet dancers, ran the New York School of Ballet. Still, he insists he was not pressured to be a child actor; indeed, throughout his early years on stage, he attended the private Allen-Stevenson School and, later on, Columbia University, where he majored in Chinese language and literature. Thomas continues to have an interest in Eastern religion; one small Buddha and a Hotei—also known as a laughing Buddha—adorn his dressing-room table: "Actually, a Buddha is a traditional good-luck symbol for an actor in a dressing room."
Thomas' academic (and spiritual) interests notwithstanding, he never completed his degree: When he was offered the plum role of John Boy on "The Waltons," he took it, and he hasn't had a dry period since.
Interestingly, Thomas has never studied acting formally. "Acting training is good for some. But acting is also a profession that lends itself to the apprenticeship approach," Thomas says. "You start as a young person, work with wonderful actors, learn by doing, and move up. Also, for me, growing up with parents who were dancers was very helpful. It taught me how to approach the work with discipline and rigor."
And perhaps no play more than "Democracy" demands those qualities. Consider the built-in problems in playing an historical figure: Admittedly, Günter Guillaume does not conjure up any particular image or vocal style, at least not to most Americans. So, clearly, impersonation is not the issue. Still, the actor playing the role can't move too far afield. Secondly, Conleth Hill, the British actor who inhabits Guillaume in the West End, has been praised to the hilt. And thirdly, Guillaume is a decidedly creepy figure.
"Günter is an antagonist, not a villain," Thomas responds. "Actually, I find him sympathetic. He's a man on a job who thinks he is manipulating the situation. He's a good spy. Yet despite his machinations, he's a paradox of innocence."
Thomas researched the role by studying film clips of Guillaume from old television news broadcasts. Nevertheless, he tackles the character as he would a fictional figure: "I'm doing an interpretation of the text and I don't have any proprietary feelings about the character. I saw the production in England, although the night I went the understudy was on. His performance was more physical and comically oriented than mine. Our performances are totally different. Yet on some level, because of the way the play is written, the vision is already in place, like clockwork."
Thomas is fully aware that "Democracy" is not for all tastes. But he fervently disputes the notion that audiences need a particular interest in post-Holocaust German politics or even some historical background to understand what's happening and, more important, appreciate the drama between the two men on stage.
Thomas talks about the unexpectedly impassioned response the play arouses in young people: "They love it because it is unsentimental and it doesn't flog an agenda. It's a play about politics, but it's not political. It's about the process of politics in a democratic society. It's not a visceral play, a shock play, a teary hanky play, or a play that evokes stomach-clutching laughter. It is, however, a play filled with irony. The young understand irony, including the ironies of impermanence. That's the final irony of the play."
That said, Thomas hopes that all audiences feel the "sadness and ironies of these two men."