What is he-who-is-most-fondly-known-as-John-Boy up to these days? In Hallmark Channel's Wild Hearts, premiering Saturday, July 8, at 9 pm/ET, Richard Thomas plays Bob Hart, a widower who trades his Los Angeles detective's shield for a sheriff's badge as he relocates, with reluctant teen daughter in tow, to his deceased dad's mustang ranch in the Montana countryside. Before you can say "culture shock," Thomas' lawman uncovers a sinister land-grabbing scheme, all while helping his kid adapt to her new home and trying himself to come to terms with his tortured past.
TVGuide.com: I like how Wild Hearts is part Western, part family drama, part CSI....
Richard Thomas: And also it's got a wonderful thing for young people, that story about the wolves. My 10-year-old loved that little adventure, so I think it's got a lot of bases covered, which is good.
TVGuide.com: I thought I sensed something familiar in the face.
Thomas: Yeah, that's Bob Culp's boy. Interesting, isn't it?
TVGuide.com: Wasn't one of your first acting jobs on a Hallmark Hall of Fame special?
Thomas: My very first acting job was a Hallmark show, a sort of anthology of short Christmas-story vignettes called The Christmas Tree. I was in a story with Jessica Tandy and Margaret Hamilton. I think I was about 7. I did a few of those.
TVGuide.com: Hallmark spins some good yarns.
Thomas: Yeah, they're good stories. There are so few networks making any number of television movies anymore ABC, NBC and CBS drastically cut the number of made-for-television movies, largely because of the reality shows so Hallmark is really one of the only places [to find them]. There's much less family viewing on television overall, so it's good that they're making these pictures at Hallmark. Not that family viewing is the only kind you want, but it should never be taken off the board.
TVGuide.com: Do you find that you enjoy a sort of "advantage" when slipping into a role, in that the audience feels this instant accessibility to "John Boy Walton"?
Thomas: One of the great things about having a career that has not just been successful but that goes on for decades is that you really do develop a relationship with your audience, and that's something that I would wager all actors are happy to have. When people tune in, they go, "Oh, I know you. You're like a friend of my family, and I want you to come into my house." It's different for television than for features. Time and time again we've seen television actors who've gone on to make features, and it doesn't really work [although] sometimes it does and we've seen feature actors start a television series, and you think, "No sweat, they're going to be a huge hit," yet it doesn't get the same response from the audience. That's because when you're in people's living rooms week after week, there's a level of... I really don't know what it is.
TVGuide.com: Familiarity? Comfort?
Thomas: It's familiar, and it's a sort of a "cooler" type of vibe, rather than a hotter type. I don't know what it is, but it does work.
TVGuide.com: As someone from a big family, I enjoyed and very much identified with The Waltons minus the whole Appalachia thing, that is.
Thomas: I appreciate that. I've got to tell you, I've talked about that show all over the world, in Africa and Greece and Japan, and it's the same reaction. Appalachia was only the setting. That show tapped into something more universal. I was very proud of that show and am always happy to talk about it.
TVGuide.com: What do you feel is the furthest you have gone from your Waltons character?
Thomas: Probably in the theater, in parts I've played on stage. In terms of TV, I did a picture with Brooke Shields [Stalking Laura, about a fatal attraction]; I did one where I played a bomber who took over a school; I did Death in Small Doses, about a man who poisoned his wife.... Those roles are always delicious to do, and they're especially fun if you've spent a lot of time playing the other kind of thing. We didn't become actors to find one comfortable thing and do it over and over again. Comedians like Robin Williams always want to have success in a serious picture, you have villains wanting to play someone that's sympathetic, and guys like me want to be bad guys. I think of each job in terms of, "This is a part that will be a stretch," and the audience will be like, "Oh god, he's playing a crazy man." And occasionally you do something like [Wild Hearts], "a Richard Thomas part," the kind you expect to see me in.
TVGuide.com: I like the interplay you have with your Wild Hearts daughter, Hallee Hirsh (ER).
Thomas: She's a sweet girl and a nice actress. She's quite beautiful on screen in her own way. And [The Facts of Life's] Nancy McKeon [as a horse doctor/Thomas' love interest] is just a doll.
TVGuide.com: Yeah, I was actually hoping for a little bit more between you two.
Thomas: I like how the romance with the two adults never got hot and heavy, but instead had that feeling of two people who have a lot of experience being very cautious and really being more interested in becoming friends first. I liked the light touch of that. Nancy is grand. As television series veterans, the two of us work in very similar ways. She was just terrific. And Geoffrey Lewis [playing the Harts' loyal farmhand] is just gold. He's one of those guys who, when you see that face, you go, "This is going to be good."
TVGuide.com: I've been interviewing a lot of the people involved in TNT's upcoming Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King series. What is your episode ["Autopsy Room Four," airing Aug. 5] about?
Thomas: Now that was a kick in the pants, a real flip side of Hallmark Channel, I'll tell you! [Laughs] Mine is an earlier Stephen King story, which paid homage to an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode in which Joseph Cotton plays a man who is paralyzed by a car accident in this story it's a snakebite but alive. Everyone else thinks he's dead, though, so he's brought into an autopsy room. It's about being naked on an autopsy slab, being able to see and hear everything that's going on, trying to figure out how you can convince them you're alive before they start cutting you up piece by piece. It's very funny, creepy and scary. I thought after I turned 50 I had dodged the bullet of having to be naked in front of the camera, but no! It found me! I thought, "Nobody wants to look at this now that I'm 55," but there I am! [Laughs]