Few thought The Waltons could succeed
by Jerry Franken
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.
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 chores 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.
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.)
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.
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 actresss, a fitting award to a lady who’s appeared ia 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.
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?