Richard Thomas nearly died in a motorcycle accident while The Waltons was on air
In The Waltons fifth season episode "The First Edition," John-Boy walks with a cane, and what many fans may not realize is that the actor Richard Thomas was acting through a real injury while filming.
The Waltons episode was filmed in 1976 when Thomas was also acting in a James Dean tribute movie called September 30, 1955.
Written and directed by James Bridges, September 30, 1955 tells Bridges’ autobiographical story about how he felt the day his hero James Dean died.
When casting for the movie, Bridges told the Associated Press in 1977 that at first, he didn’t think that Thomas would be perfect for the part.
"I resisted the suggestion of Richard Thomas, never having seen The Waltons," Bridges said. "But the minute he walked in my office, I fell in love with him."
Once Thomas was cast, the film immediately began shooting, and then six days into shooting, Thomas got into a horrific motorcycle crash where Bridges said Thomas could have died because he "might have had his head knocked off."
The crash happened in Arkansas where Bridges was shooting a homecoming parade scene.
"It was the scene where Richard revs up his motorcycle in defiance of the townspeople at the homecoming parade," Bridges said. "He looked over his shoulder and took off. The motorcycle jolted forward and headed for the flatbed of a truck."
Luckily, Bridges said that Thomas jumped and saved himself from what could’ve been a brutal injury or even fatal accident.
Instead, Thomas broke his ankle in two places and the movie filming was delayed by more than a year.
Eventually, September 30, 1955 premiered in 1977, but between his motorcycle accident and that premiere date, Thomas bore the pain and continued appearing on The Waltons.
In interviews, Thomas said he was too young to have been personally affected when Dean died in 1955.
"I wasn’t overcome with grief on the day James Dean died," Thomas told The New York Times in 1976. "I was 4 at the time."
But as an actor, Thomas said he grew to greatly respect Dean as a singular actor who couldn’t be imitated.
"Of course, Dean figures prominently in the feelings of any actor alive today," Thomas said. "I have a tremendous appreciation for his performances, but I’m not influenced by them. You cannot be influenced by a man like James Dean and retain an ounce of your own identity as an actor. That would be like a high school poet trying to imitate E.E. Cummings."
For any Waltons fans who went out to see the movie, Thomas acknowledged it must’ve been a shock to see the John-Boy actor playing such a different type of boy who was described as the same age as John-Boy.
"The boy I play in September 30, 1955 is not at all like John-Boy," Thomas said. "He sees himself as dangerous and unpredictable, and he plays with the ladies, which is a departure for me."