|Photo: Courtesy of Hallmark Channel
Regrets? Everyone has a few, unless perhaps you’re Frank Sinatra. For the rest of us, time marches on whether we make the right decisions or not – and it’s hard to not look back on the past and wish we’d been able to guide our younger selves. But in the Hallmark Channel Original Movie “Time After Time,” which premieres Saturday, March 19 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C), Richard Thomas gets to play a man with a rare opportunity – the ability to tweak his past b getting to know his brasher, if more fearful, 30-year-old self.
Sound a little “Back to the Future”? Maybe. But Thomas, a onetime child actor who grew up to become John-Boy on “The Waltons,” says it’s not about the sci-fi, but about people and relationships.
“It’s about how moments are precious and you shouldn’t squander them,” says Thomas, who turns 60 in June. “The present is all we have. It’s an admonition about how you make your choices in the present.”
If the present is all we have, then it’s a good thing Thomas’s character Dick Kern shows up when he does in “Time After Time.” The 30-year old Richard is an ambitious journalist based in Tulsa who flees his job and the state when a story goes wrong. He ends up back on Long Island, New York, working for the small town paper where he got his start.
But then things get a little haywire when Richard meets another newcomer to the paper – Dick, who seems to know a whole lot about Richard’s life, and how he became the person who ran away, rather than confront, his troubles. Dick reveals he’s actually Richard, 30 years older, and he’s here to help him become the man he should be. With Dick offering advice, Richard learns to face a number of challenges – including re-acquainting himself with his former high-school sweetheart Jackie, who is now engaged.
When Richard is assigned what on the surface seems to be just a fluff piece about a new mega-store coming to town, Save-A-Lot, Dick is there to prod him to dig deeper. The story turns out to be one that could change the course of Richard’s career … and the fate of his quaint, small town.
So wait – amidst the romance and metaphysics and rewriting of history, is “Time After Time” also hiding a warning message about big box stores?
“Of course!” laughs Thomas. “One thing that’s terrific about this movie is that it will reach people in communities like this one who should take a closer look. This film has a social message about valuing the smaller in our society. We’ve always been in conflict in America where we value the little guy … but want to be Vanderbilt. It’s a risky question in this economy, but it’s kind of an evergreen question, too.”
In a sense, Thomas’ career with Hallmark has an evergreen quality: The son of ballet dancers, he took to the stage as a child and, in spite of having partial hearing loss (he uses hearing aids now), earned accolades for his work on stage and screen. But some of his earliest notice came from his live-on-TV appearances in several Hallmark Hall of Fame movies, beginning with 1958’s “The Christmas Tree.”
“It was nerve-wracking,” he says of performing live to the camera. “But I was a stage performer, so it was normal to do shows live. You only get one shot at it – you get a dress rehearsal and then do it live. So everyone’s game is up.”
He landed his most notable role in “The Waltons” in 1971, and then left in 1977, returning to the “John-Boy” part several times over the years for various movie specials. For years it was the way in which most people recognized him, though over the decades that’s tapered off – in part to his New York residency, which affords him a certain amount of anonymity. But, he admits it sure took a while before he could shake off being “John-Boy” to everyone.
“When you first leave a show you know you’ll have to do some heavy lifting to balance the scales,” he says. “You can’t expect everyone to be on your schedule, just because you left the show and want to play other parts. But it’s astonishing – people still come up to me in England and France and recognize me. I’m proud of that show and have nothing but fond memories. I’m glad that’s the TV series I’m known for.”
Over the decades, Thomas built a career of playing to the “John-Boy” expectations – and against them, with a career that includes everything from appearances on “Law & Order” (2009) to feature films like “Wonder Boys” (2000) and adaptations of Stephen King works like “It” (1990). But he says “Time After Time” was a unique experience.
“I’ve made over 50 TV films over the years – but we shot this film in 15 days. That’s a new land speed record in my life,” he says.
Finding the film was a real pleasure, he says: His last Hallmark film, 2006’s “Wild Hearts” had done well, and he was paging through several scripts when “Time” jumped out at him.
“At first I wasn’t sure if they were sending it to me to play the younger guy or the older guy,” he chuckles. “People forget I’m, well, old because I seem younger.”
Clearly, he was destined for the elder part of Dick, and specifically asked if he could let it all hang out to play the part – that is, just be himself. “I thought, ‘I just want to let it go.’ I want to be a little heavy and look my age, and not have anything airbrushed out and see how it is.”
As a father of seven – with ages ranging from 34 to 14 – Thomas is grateful that films like the ones Hallmark makes still exist, which is why he likes returning to the fold.
“Hallmark is one of the few places left where I can do a film that appeals to the kind of family viewership that loved ‘The Waltons.’ A lot of those people have a hard time with what’s on television right now. It’s family entertainment, and family entertainment is not just children’s programming; it’s a show the whole family can watch together, and when it’s done they can have a discussion. That doesn’t mean it can’t have edges – it just has to be aware of its audience. This picture is that kind of picture; everyone can sit down and watch it,” he says.
But would he want to time-travel back and give advice to his younger self? Thomas feels like he already does, every time he talks to his kids.
“I have a wife I adore, and a 14-year old kid I never thought I’d have, and if I’d done things slightly differently, maybe I wouldn’t have that now,” he says. “But people ask themselves this question all the time. One always does things that one isn’t so proud of, treating a person a certain way, or saying something wrong. But it’s a teaching device. If you can admit to yourself there are things you would change – what does that teach you?”
“Time After Time” premieres March 19 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C).