All about The Waltons, the nostalgic 1970s hit TV series about family life during the Great Depression

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The Waltons - vintage TV show cast

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“The Waltons” was a simple story of a large family living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression.

The classic TV show originally aired from 1972 through 1981, starred Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton, a country boy trying to become a writer; Ralph Waite and Michael Learned as his parents, John and Olivia; and Will Geer and Ellen Corby as Grandpa and Grandma Walton.

Also starring in the highly-acclaimed series, as John-Boy’s brothers and sisters, were Judy Norton as Mary Ellen; Jon Walmsley as Jason; Mary McDonough as Erin; Eric Scott as Ben; David Harper as Jim-Bob; and Kami Cotler as Elizabeth.


Few thought The Waltons could succeed (1973)

by Jerry Franken – Waterloo Daily Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) August 3, 1973

It’s all so different now, as compared to then.

“Then” was a year ago. A new, and vastly different kind of television series was about to make its debut. The program was “The Waltons.” It was, actually, without precedent in the history of the medium.

There was, for example, no violence. The stories were based on the actual boyhood of the man who created the program which was, in turn, based on novels he’d written about that boyhood, spent during the depression years in the Blue Ridge country. The author’s name was, and is, Earl Hamner.

Beyond that, the stories were based primarily on family love. There’d been all sorts of family programs on TV, but virtually without exception, the family situations these shows had dealt with were extremes.

In the case of “The Waltons,” the situations were real. The stories derived from the problems of real people confronted with challenges television dramatists had not coped with before.

The WaltonsThe Waltons family on the front porch

So, there was some skepticism that so different a program could succeed. Many television executives stressed the point that the greater part of the audience, which had not lived through the Depression, and did not know it first-hand, would not be able to identify either with the people on the series or their way of life.

After all, how many in today’s America really know what an old-fashioned general store looks like? Or, in this urban age, what it’s like to go out in your own back yard for your Thanksgiving turkey or the vegetables for the evening meal, or to eat homemade bread or become deeply and emotionally involved in the possibility of slaughtering a calf? Yet this was the stuff “The Waltons” was made of.

And to make matters more difficult, there were the network programs opposite “The Waltons.” Flip Wilson for one, and “Mod Squad” for another. Both were powerhouses in television’s unrelenting numbers battle. So, the skeptics reasoned, a “softie” like “The Waltons” was up against it.

Opposing them were the believers. These included the program executives at CBS-TV and a man named Lee Rich and a man named Robert L Jacks. Rich was the executive producer; Jacks the producer.

They had performed like champs in the highly successful movie special “The Homecoming” — so successful that it had led to the notion of dramatizing the lives of these rural people each week.

Vintage Waltons TV special

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This year, the story is different, “The Waltons,” without challenge, is the most outstanding new program in years. It won six Emmys. It won the prestigious Peabody Award for distinguished drama. It won a variety of magazine polls. A poll of television editors by a newspaper wire service singled it out as the year’s best.

True, “The Waltons” took off slowly. But as television editors, critics and columnists kept reporting on it favorably, more and more viewers kept tuning in each Thursday evening.

And even though the great majority of these viewers had only read about the Depression in their history books, or heard of that grim period from their elders, they did indeed identify with those Walton people, the three generations of them. (One interesting sidelight is that the youngsters on the program now get weekly sacks of fan mail, the sort of mail pile-up old movie stars like Shirley Temple used to get.)

The Waltons TV series cast photo on set

Not that the popularity of the actors who are “The Waltons” is limited to the youngsters. Not by a long shot.

Richard Thomas, who is John-Boy Walton, is now a full-fledged star, and was acknowledged as such by his peers, who voted him an Emmy.

Miss Michael Learned, who plays Olivia, the mother, and who made her series debut on the program, was equally honored as best actress in a dramatic series, which is the way it’s engraved on her Emmy.

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And then there’s that other “newcomer,” Ellen Corby. She plays the somewhat acerbic, but warm-inside grandmother. Her Emmy honors her as best supporting actress, a fitting award to a lady who’s appeared in some 500 movies and, pre-Waltons, on just about every major TV drama program.

“The Waltons” has also added new lustre to the fabulous career of Will Geer, the grandfather, who’s been entertaining American audiences, as an actor and singer, for close to half a century.

It also introduced still another star, Ralph Waite, who costars as John Walton, the father. He, like Michael Learned, made his series debut on the program.

Now the actors and the writers the directors and the behind-the-cameras crew are busily working making the second year’s programs.

About The Waltons, the nostalgic 1970s hit TV series

Creator Earl Hamner, who opens and closes each program with his off-screen narration as John-Boy, the man, leaves his fine mark on every program. He is executive story editor, and also writes many of the scripts.

There is a show business axiom that you can “feel” a happy company moments after you walk on to the stage. There’s a relaxed, friendly atmosphere that is so real it’s almost tangible.

This feeling, as part of the magic that is entertainment, is somehow conveyed — be it in the theater, movies or television — to the audience. This was true of “The Waltons” at the very outset. If the actors and others concerned had secret doubts, they never showed.

Now, as an established hit, that feeling when you walk on “The Waltons” set is even more palpable. It’s likely to continue to grow.

If that weren’t so, why did the kids on the program spend so much time playing and socializing together during the months the program was on vacation?


The Waltons opening/closing credits & theme, plus saying goodnight

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Thanksgiving with The Waltons (1973)

Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1973 — Photograph by Sherman Weist

Television’s colorful, sprawling Walton family evokes for us a special kind of Thanksgiving nostalgia — a nostalgia for big, old-fashioned families (our apologies to the zero populationists), for generation mixing without generation gaps, for warmth and wit that weathers the good times and the bad.

The Waltons' Christmas Album

It seemed only appropriate to us to ask the Waltons to join us for the Journal’s annual Thanksgiving feast this year.

We all got together on the set of the family’s Emmy-winning weekly show just before the day’s shooting was to begin.

The dinner, an old-time, made-from-scratch spread, was a great success — almost too great a success.

We had all we could to keep the younger Waltons — Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough) and Ben (Eric Scott) — from digging into Pumpkin Cheese Pie before we finished the photography session.

John-Boy (Richard Thomas) saved the day by keeping his younger siblings in tow. Mother Olivia Walton (Michael Learned) and Grandmother Walton (Ellen Corby) requested copies of our recipes.

When it was all over, the whole family — including Grandfather Walton (Will Geer), Jason (Jon Walinsky). Mary Ellen (Judy Norton), and Father John Walton (Ralph Waite) sat down to sample the fare.

Featured: Baked Candied Cranberries, Pumpkin Cheese Pie, Corn Bread Stuffing, Spiced Cider Cup, Chilled Vegetables Vinaigrette, Creamed Onions with Pork Cracklings, Corn with Black Walnuts, Mincemeat Pie, Glazed Sweet Potatoes, Roast Turkey, and Sally Lunn bread.

ALSO SEE: Retro Thanksgiving recipes: Turkey fondue, Ham crepes, Caramel rum pumpkin cake & more (1974)

Thanksgiving with The Waltons - 1973 (2)

Thanksgiving with The Waltons - 1973 (1)


The Waltons know how to make you feel right at home (1973)

By Jimmy Johnson – The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California) April 10, 1973

BURBANK — There’s something highly contagious about “The Waltons.” They really know how to make you feel at home.

One visit, with that simple but. sensitive family and you never want. to go home. Pretty Michael Learned, who portrays Olivia Walton, the mother of that large brood on the Thursday evening CBS television series, was explaining why.

“The Waltons are very poor,” she said through a warm smile. “They have nothing, yet they have everything. They have each other.

“The times were hard, very hard. There was no money, but there was love,” she emphasized. “Love was important then; it’s just as important now.”

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Miss Learned will be featured in the series’ special two-hour Easter show, in which she is stricken with polio.

“The Easter show could be our finest show,” she said. It really shows the essence of each member of the family — the hopes and desires of both the parents and the children.

“I’m confined to bed with a strong possibility that I may never walk again. Still, I find the strength to encourage the children to develop their own interests as if nothing has changed.

“It is a beautifully written show.”

Waltons TV series - Mr and Mrs Walton

“The Waltons” is the story of a warm, close-knit. Blue Ridge Mountain family that struggles through the Great Depression years.

Although the times are hard and life is a struggle, “The Waltons” never lose sight of the responsibility they have to each other, and to other people whose lives they enrich.

MORE: The Great Depression: Newspaper headlines from the 1929 stock market crash

“This show has been quite a surprise to us all,” Ralph Waite, who plays the father, John Walton, revealed.

“At the start of the season, ‘The Waltons’ hardly registered in the ratings. But everyone associated with the show –Michael, Richard Thomas, Will Geer. Ann Corby, Earl Hamner and all the kids — believed in it.

“We attracted a solid audience as the season progressed, and now we have the No. 1 show in our time slot.”

Getting from the woodshed to the front door was no easy task for “The Waltons.” They were up against some strong competition from other networks.

“The Flip Wilson Show” on NBC was continually in the top 10 ratings, while “Mod Squad,” the ABC offering in the same time period, was almost as strong, thanks to its youthful viewers.

Vintage Waltons TV Guide cover

“The kids have helped our ratings tremendously, too,” Miss Learned observed. “There are a lot of young people on our show, and the youth can respond to ‘The Waltons’ because it is not an assault on their lives.

“It’s the kind of show that could have been filled with a lot of syrupy sentimentality,” she added, “but we guard against. that. The kids would spot anything that was phony.”

“The Waltons” was one of the first shows picked up by CBS for next season. “If it hadn’t been picked up, we would have been very surprised,” Miss Learned said. “We got the hint early that the show was going to be picked up when several scripts were ordered and prepared in advance.”

She is perfect for the part of a mother of seven children. She has three sons of her own and she grew up in a family of six girls. And that name, Michael, wasn’t the name given her by an unhappy father who was hoping for a son.

“I have five sisters and at least four of them have unusual names,” she pointed out. “There was Gretl, Sabre, Dorit, Phillippa and Susan.

“Kids in our day didn’t like unusual names. I really hated mine,” Miss Learned volunteered. “However, kids nowadays like different-sounding names, so I guess I was just a little ahead of my time. I don’t mind it half as much now as I did when I was a kid.”

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The Waltons TV show cast - 1970s

The daughter of a diplomat, Miss Learned spent most of her youth traveling around the world. “I guess my dad had itchy feet,” she laughed, “but I’m glad he did. He wanted us to see the rest of the world.

“There are times when you get the feeling that you have no home, especially when you are young, but travel is good. It gives you depth . . . sort of makes you a three-dimensional person.”

The daughter of a diplomat, Miss Learned spent most of her youth traveling around the world. “I guess my dad had itchv feet,” she laughed, ‘but I’m glad he did. He wanted us to see the rest of the world.

“There are times when you get the feeling that you have no home, especially when you are young, but travel is good. It gives you depth . . . sort of makes you ae three- dimensional person.”

Waltons TV Guide cover

For a person who spent much of life living out of a trunk in a different country just about every year, Miss Learned has turned into quite a homebody.

“I was offered a movie,” she said, “but it conflicted with ‘The Waltons.’ Too, I would have had to go on location and I don’t like to go too far away from home and my three children.”

That’s the same kind of reply the viewers have grown to expect from Olivia Walton, whose family means more to her than all the riches in the world.

Waite, who plays the hard-working father trying desperately to provide for a large family, works just as hard when he’s not doing the series.

“I try to stay busy,” he said with a grin.

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“The Waltons” finished shooting for the season on a Thursday, and the White Plains, N.Y., actor was back in front of the camera the following Monday making a feature motion picture — “A Complete State of Death”–for producer Michael Winner.

“After we finish shooting the movie which, incidentally, stars Charles Bronson,” Waite offered, “I plan to go to Boston for a month.

“David Wheeler, a friend of mine, has this theater group in Boston and I try to spend a month out of every year up there. It’s one of the finest regional theater groups in the country, and it gives me a chance to do some directing.

“I used to go up there all the time when I was living in New York.”

Dynamite Magazine issue 2 - April 1974 - The Waltons

Waite didn’t start out to be an actor; he majored in theology and philosophy at Yale and Bucknell universities. And his first job after college was as a social worker for the Westchester County Welfare Department.

Somewhere during that time, he became interested in acting, and after a stint as an assistant editor with a publishing house, he chucked it all for a career in the theater.

He did eight Broadway plays and 15 off-Broadway shows in eight years before Hollywood called him to do a handful of motion pictures.

With the exception of one segment of “Nichols,” Waite steered clear of television until “The Waltons” came along.

“It wasn’t that he was opposed to television, but mainly because I was too busy with motion pictures.”

And now that ‘The Waltons” has proved to be such a success, his feature film work may have to come during seasonal breaks.

But, Waite will find time to fit in one or two films a year, because he’s taken a page from John Walton, who works hard, and always gets the job done.


Episode recap: The Waltons’ John-Boy, torn between family and the law (1974)

The Waltons episode summary from 1974-  Corsicana Daily Sun (Corsicana, Texas) September 8, 1974

Caught between family ties and the law, John-Boy must put his life and his beliefs on the line in a special two-hour episode as the multi-award-winning series “The Waltons” returns for its third season on Thursday, Sept. 12 [1974] (7-9 pm) on the CBS Television Network. Beulah Bondi guest stars as an aged Walton trying to save her home.

In this season’s premiere episode, “The Conflict,” Grandpa agrees to take up arms against the Federal government and insists that John-Boy do the same when his sister-in-law, Martha Corinne Walton (Miss Bond), demands that Grandpa help the men in her family defend her home with rifles against the encroachment of a Federal highway.

The Waltons McCalls magazine cover (1973)

When Grandpa insists on joining the fight, John sends John-Boy to keep an eye on him while he goes to a Government agency to protest. His mission fails, and meanwhile, as US marshals and bulldozers approach the modest home, Grandpa hands John-Boy a rifle and tells him either to prove he’s a real Walton or go home.

The premiere episode, directed by Ralph Senensky from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, was filmed at the Burbank Studios and on location in Los Padres National Forest in California. Lee Rich is the executive producer, and Robert L Jacks is the producer for the series. Earl Hamner, creator of “The Waltons,” serves as executive story consultant.

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