Max Casella and Richard Thomas in "Timon of Athens," written...

Max Casella and Richard Thomas in "Timon of Athens," written by William Shakespeare and directed by Barry Edelstein, a Public LAB Production running through March 6 at The Public Theater in Manhattan. Credit: Joan Marcus Photo

Short of playing a rapist (which he's done) or serial killer (done that, too), playing the title role in Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" is about as far from "The Waltons" as Richard Thomas can get. That iconic 1970s CBS series, in which Thomas played John-Boy Walton, the eldest son of a Depression-era family and an aspiring writer, made Thomas a star and earned him an Emmy Award.

Timon (pronounced "TY-min") is a much darker figure, in one of Shakespeare's least performed plays. Thomas brings him to life in The Public Theater's limited-run production, which opened for previews last week and runs through March 6. "Timon" is the inaugural production of Public Shakespeare Lab, a program offering scaled-down productions at affordable prices (just $15).

Thomas, 59, has appeared in five Shakespeare productions, plus eight Broadway plays (most recently David Mamet's "Race"), and 50-plus movies (including TV's "Time After Time," a drama starring Thomas as a Long Islander, premiering on the Hallmark Channel March 19). A native New Yorker, Thomas lives in Manhattan. He sat down with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio at The Public.

How are you holding up this winter? You were in Southern California for some time.

I like it. We were excited to move back to the city to have a real winter. But then there were these insipid winters, and my son was like, what were you talking about? Finally - now we're getting our fill.

So why is "Timon of Athens" so rarely performed?

Have you ever seen it?


Good. See, that's one of the many exciting things about this play. It's a Shakespeare play, and people don't know what's gonna happen next. Many scholars consider it to be unfinished. It's a play about money, and relationships. Is money corrupting, or is the essence of human nature corrupt? As always, Shakespeare gives you these questions; he's not really interested in providing hard answers.

Why do actors love Shakespeare, yet so many others find the language ... difficult?

Even for Shakespeare lovers, the first 10 minutes of a Shakespeare play sounds like Latvian. You go, "HUHHH?" But before you know it, your brain adjusts, and you're understanding stuff you didn't think you would.

Your parents were ballet dancers, weren't they?

Yes. I slept in a trunk all over Europe ... and City Center. I grew up in the dressing rooms and sitting on the laps of musicians in the pit.

What do you think you learned from them?

A great sense of discipline. A respect for working with other people, adapting to their styles. I loved that I was raised in a theater family that helped me learn how to work ... and enjoy myself. Because I really have a good time. I do. There's nothing more exciting than that first reading, where everything is possible. Then, there's the first day of tech, where you move into the theater. And then, there's the first preview, where you get your first paid audience. Nothing like it.

You play a Long Island newspaperman in your latest film, "Time After Time." What's that about?

I play a man who goes back in time and meets his younger self in order to help him ... deal with things that didn't go right the first time. I play a man about my age, which is ... refreshing.

You don't ever wish for a moratorium on "Waltons" questions?

Absolutely not. I have nothing but happy memories and pride about that show. I loved the people - one of my Waltons sisters came to New York just last week and we hung out ...

Which sister?

Mary Elizabeth McDonough - Erin. We're all close. There are many people who'll always look at me and see that. Which is fine. They're allowed. ... If you want to get them to look at you in a different way, you have to invest in doing different work. Luckily, I've had those opportunities. So I'm happy with those memories. If I was going to do one series in my life, I'm happy it was that one.

It occurred to me that one of the reasons why I'm a writer today is because of watching John-Boy writing in his tablets.

Oh, wow.

I started a journal with pads my parents had that looked like the kind you used - they folded from the top.

Exactly. Big Chief tablets. Oh ... that's so great. (He laughs.) It's nice to know the work means something to somebody. You can't ask for anything more. That means a lot to me. It really does. More than you know ... more than you know.

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