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They expected twins. Twins run in both families, and sonograms in Alma Thomas' third and seventh month indicated she was carrying two babies.

Then, three weeks early, Alma went into labor and a doctor discovered a third tiny heartbeat. He ordered a cesarean for the next day, and Alma telephoned her husband, Richard, the actor made famous by his role as John-Boy in The Waltons. He was in New York finishing a seven-month run in the play Fifth of July. Her message: "There are three of them. They're coming out tomorrow, so get here." That was Aug. 25.

Thomas told only his stage manager what was happening and flew home. Although delivery by cesarean minimized the danger, the birth of triplets is a rare event for doctors and nurses: They occur only once in every 9,300 births. "I was holding my breath," Thomas admits. "Anything could have happened."

The saga of the Thomas triplets began in December 1980 in snowy Berlin, where Richard was shooting a TV movie. He allows that as the temperature plummeted, he and Alma "did a lot of nesting." The result was the most spectacular production of John-Boy's career: three identical daughters born without incident at 2:58, 2:59 and 3:00 p.m. The 34-year-old Alma came through the ordeal in good shape. As for the ebullient Richard, 30, the arrival of Barbara Ayala (six pounds one ounce), Gwyneth Gonzales (four pounds nine ounces) and Pilar Alma (five pounds eight ounces) has attracted more attention than a shelf full of Emmys. "Friends read about it as far away as Salzburg, Austria," marvels Richard. "It was announced at Sardi's. Letters came by the hundreds offering us advice. It was incredible."

There is, in fact, very little that is commonplace about the birth of triplets. The 5'5½" Alma, for instance, gained 45 pounds during her pregnancy, weighing in at 170. Yet neither she nor her doctors at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center were overly concerned. "She was enormous, uncomfortable and tired," Richard remembers. But five years before, when their son, Richard Francisco, was born, Alma had shot up to 175 pounds. "The weight was spread all over my body then," she says. "This time it was all out front. I was all babies." (She lost 40 pounds in two days after the delivery.)

While Alma recuperated, Richard went on a whirlwind 90-minute, $1,000 shopping tour—for cribs, 36 blankets and 36 bottles. Then he returned to Broadway for a week to finish his stage commitment. After 10 days in the hospital, Alma went home, where a part-time nurse helped her, Richard and Alma's mother, Guillermina Gonzalez, cope with the newborns. They all joined in the round-the-clock feeding and diapering.

The babies look so much alike that at first the couple relied on earrings to tell them apart. (When they are older they will wear sapphire, ruby and emerald studs, the gift of a friend.) But almost immediately the girls' distinct personalities began to emerge. "Barbara, the biggest, is quiet and obviously feels more secure," Alma observes. "Gwyneth, the smallest, is perky and eats quickly, as if she knows she has to catch up. Pilar is the hysteric, the fussy one."

The early feeding routine was complicated. Alma would nurse one infant for about 20 minutes and then pass her on to Richard, who finished the meal with a bottle of Enfamil. During the night the feeding shift ran from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. "I'd wake up and tend to whoever cried first myself," Alma says. "Then Richard and I would take the next one, and if all three woke at once we'd run and get my mother. I never watched so much TV in my life. I'd turn it on during the feeding so I wouldn't doze off. I was so tired."

The couple now employ a live-in nanny, their only full-time help; a cleaning service does the housework. Alma has stopped nursing and the babies sleep in the nanny's room or with their parents on a rotating basis. Skeptical of prepared baby foods because of the sugar and salt they contain, Alma blends fresh fruits or vegetables in her Cuisinart. "That thing stood on the shelf for three years after I bought it for her," Richard says. The babies' bottles are sterilized in the dishwasher.

Alma often finds herself preparing grown-up dinner as well for a dozen or more relatives and friends. Visitors have been streaming in to inspect the new additions. Richard Francisco takes the invasion with aplomb. His father recalls, "When we brought the girls home, I asked, 'What do you think?' and he said, 'I think I'm outnumbered.' I told him, 'We're both outnumbered. We're in this together.' "

Dad has volunteered for all aspects of the babies' care, including baths in the kitchen sink and 30 diaper changes a day. "There are times when Alma and I look at each other," he sighs, "and realize that although we've been together all day doing things, we haven't had a moment alone."

For trips outside the house, the girls travel in a three-seat stroller or in knapsacks on their parents' backs. (The nanny carries the third child.) The family entourage "really stops traffic," laughs Alma, who says she's "thinking of having signs printed with answers to the questions we know we are going to be asked: How much did they weigh? [Now Barbara is 13 pounds, Gwyneth 11 pounds six ounces, Pilar 12 pounds six ounces.] Did you take fertility drugs? [No.]"

"I'd heard of fertility dances and fertility rites," says Richard, "but I never even knew fertility drugs existed until people started asking. A bottle of champagne and six ounces of caviar—that's a fertility drug as far as I'm concerned." Women who take the drugs rarely produce identical offspring because the treatment encourages the release of more than one egg, all of which can be fertilized. Identical children come from a fertilized egg that splits.

Richard, understandably, is giving considerable thought to the Thomases' future. Conceding that "we're a less mobile family now," he says that would-be employers "will have to know they're hiring a family unit. I don't travel with a hairdresser or private secretary, but my family comes with me, and that's important." For the Thomas children, that sort of peripatetic upbringing would mirror their father's own.

His mother, Barbara Fallis, who died of cancer in 1980, and father, Richard Scott Thomas, were dancers, and young Richard learned Spanish as his first language while they performed with Alicia Alonso's ballet troupe in Cuba. After his parents moved back to Manhattan, where they eventually launched the New York School of Ballet, Richard made his Broadway debut at age 7 as young John Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. While he was going to school, he also took on roles in O'Neill, Albee and Shakespeare plays and in films like Winning and Red Sky at Morning. These parts brought him to the attention of the Waltons' producers.

It was during his TV years as John-Boy that he met Alma, a native Californian whose parents were Mexican. A part-time waitress, secretary to a press agent and saleswoman for an imported-rug business, Alma caught the actor's eye while she was dancing with friends at a Middle Eastern nightclub in L.A. Thomas introduced himself and joined Alma and her group in a folk dance. "I had never done that before," he confesses. "But she was a wonderful dancer and had this beautiful smile." He took her to a Betty Boop cartoon festival on their first date. After a year-long courtship, they were married on Valentine's Day 1975. Richard Francisco arrived the following year, and Thomas left The Waltons shortly thereafter to broaden his career.

Besides his much-praised Broadway role in Fifth of July and regular appearances on the home screen (All Quiet on the Western Front), he has toured in Whose Life Is It Anyway? and picked up pocket money with films like Battle Beyond the Stars and September 30, 1955. But this year, he says, "I want to concentrate on getting Richard into school and being with the girls."

The family lives in a three-bedroom 1920s Spanish-style home in the Hollywood Hills. It's a tranquil neighborhood, full of orange and plum trees, scarlet poinsettia bushes and families. Dedicated homebodies, Richard and Alma favor quiet evenings with neighborhood and nonprofessional friends. "I'm not saying that family life is necessary for everyone. Some performers are ruined by it," Richard reflects. "But this household is a wonderful thing." Alma echoes his sentiments. "I'm doing now what I've always wanted to do," she says, smiling. "I don't yearn for a career or any other life but the one I've got." Even so, she isn't planning on any more children and has talked about a tubal ligation.

Papa is already thinking of his triplets as possible performers. "Barbara is going to be an opera singer, Gwyneth a dancer and Pilar an actress." But if things don't work out that way, no matter. "They'll probably end up owning a Chevrolet franchise in Van Nuys, and none of them will ever set foot in the theater," Richard says. "I'll be prepared for that too."