Every Thursday evening, at 8 p.m., millions of Americans would sit down to witness the wholesome, rural life of The Waltons. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, this traditional, sunny-haired family took us through their everyday life out in the country, and we gladly joined them for family dinners and walks in nature.
Spanning over a decade on CBS, this series was a fresh of breath air, and although it was set in the dreary times of the Great Depression and WWII, it always managed to brighten up the screen. But what went on behind the scenes didn’t always coincide with their heartwarming demeanor. Get ready to explore some surprising facts about this iconic fictional family.
The show’s creator, Earl Hamner Jr., grew up with seven siblings in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. This rural environment, devoid of any bustling traffic noise, was the creative inspiration behind this wholesome show. Earl first forged his experiences into a novel, which was then adapted into the 1963 film Spencer’s Mountain, and, due to its success, turned into the beloved series.
Earl is also the narrating voice walking us through those melancholy autumns and long summer days. You can truly hear the authenticity behind his words because each segment carries with it some memory from his childhood. One scene, in particular, is a routine his own family would go through before bed: the goodnight snippet at the end of each episode. With so many siblings, they would repeatedly tell each other good night until his dad would say, “Alright! That’s enough” to quiet them down.
Many lead characters on the show were very young at the time of filming and couldn’t properly reflect on how they were being treated. But after the show ended, some unpleasant concerns began to surface. Many felt that they hadn’t been appreciated enough, and, in retrospect, they felt underpaid. Eric Scott, who played Ben Walton, admitted that they did not get rich from the show.
Considering that they spent most of their childhood working on set, their frustration is understandable. Eric also noted that there was a lot of pressure to perfect the scenes and say your line correctly, and sentences like “stop making it difficult” were commonly heard on set. Many of the Walton kids feel disappointed about not being congratulated for their hard work. They’re disappointed that no one called to say, “By the way, thank you.”
The show’s mother figure, Michael Learned, took it upon herself to care for the kids while the cameras weren’t rolling. She would often receive flower arrangements and kind gestures from the producers, and after noticing that the kids weren’t receiving anything, she immediately took action.
She went to the producers and said, “These kids have given you years of their lives, and you can’t even get them something?” Once confronted, they felt a bit ashamed, but not too much, because their gift in return was scanty and embarrassing. Producers sent the kids a basket with three muffins. Unless they were trying to teach them the value of generosity, they’re three muffins short.
Ralph Waite, who played the caring and supportive father of the show, decided to take a different route once the show ended and while some of his costars stuck with acting, he dove head deep into politics. He surprised the people of California when he decided to run for congress as a democrat in three different occasions.
His first attempt was in 1990, but it proved unsuccessful. He attempted again after Sonny Bono’s passing in 1998 and ran in both elections, the special one and the one in November, but unfortunately, he never managed to get a seat. After three attempts, John opted for a different career path, working at rehabilitation facilities and helping people overcome their hardships with addiction.
Following the rural purge on all networks, CBS didn’t think The Waltons would bring anything new to the table. Shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres were already broadcasting and seemed to satisfy America’s taste for wholesome country life. So, when CBS decided to air it, they gave it only two or three seasons at best.
The show aired every Thursday at 8 p.m., and, at the time, that timeslot meant they were competing with two very popular shows, ABC’s The Mod Squad and NBC’s The Flip Wilson Show. This obviously added to the network’s lack of faith, but, to everyone’s surprise, the show did extremely well and lasted for nine seasons.
The beautiful scenery gave viewers the sensation that they were visiting the Waltons in the deep Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. But we already know that TV has a way of creating illusory shots, so this might not come as a surprise that the mountains were, in fact, the Hollywood hills. The chosen slope is located south of the Warner Bros. studio, and behind it, is the infamous Hollywood sign.
The Waltons’ ranch was north of the studio, and beautifully crafted so it looked like they were miles away from neon signs and flashy cars. The original house had actually been burned down in 1991, ten years after the show ended, by a studio employee. Fortunately, it was rebuilt in 1993 for a special cast reunion.
The writers might have gotten a bit too caught up with the storytelling, because at certain points in the show, the time doesn’t add up well and the characters’ ages become questionable to the audience who is well aware of how old they’re supposed to be. For example, one episode shows John Walton Sr. going to his high school reunion in 1936, 25 years later, meaning he would have graduated in 1911.
But a different episode shows him struggling to get a government contract because he hadn’t graduated. According to the show, he couldn’t finish high school because he was drafted during World War I, which began in 1914, three years after the supposed graduation ceremony. Despite these slightly annoying glitches, fans were forgiving and enjoyed the show to its fullest.
Richard Thomas is one of the only child actors who continued his love for acting once the show ended. From John Boy to FBI agent, he’s taken up and played characters in all genres. He has appeared on numerous TV mini-series like The Wild West and It. He also took up roles in Law & Order, The Good Wife, White Collar and played an FBI agent on The Americans for three years.
Richard took his love of acting back to the stage as well, appearing numerous times on Broadway in plays like The Little Foxes, You Can’t Take It with You and Democracy. The former John-Boy is deeply appreciated in the world of acting and has earned himself valuable nominations and awards.
The Waltons wasn’t the first time Ralph fictionally fathered Richard Thomas. The two have a history of acting as father and son in the 1969 movie, “Last Summer.” The teen drama is a coming of age story taking place one summer on Fire Island and it involves a lot of fishing, boating, and adolescent experimentation.
This wasn’t the only reunion of the Last Summer Cast. Richard’s costars in the teen drama, Catherine Burns and Bruce Davison, made guest appearances in the Waltons’ household as well in Season Two and Three. What a change from the reckless affairs on Fire Island to the Waltons’ homey and snug environment!
The Waltons’ father was portrayed as a man who wasn’t the biggest fan of attending church, and only went on special occasions. The rest of the family was far more religious. Interestingly, real life tells a whole different story. Before pursuing an acting career, Ralph Waite was actually ordained as a Presbyterian minister after earning a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School.
He served as a minister at the United Church of Christ in Garden City and was highly regarded by the people of the community. After a few years of working as a social worker and as a religious book editor for a publishing house, at age 32, John Waite converted church bells for the sound of a clapperboard.
There’s a reason why Ralph and Michael’s on-screen chemistry was incredibly believable. Apart from being great actors, they developed deep and genuine feelings towards each other off set as well. When they began shooting the series, the two actors were single, and naturally, thoughts began to drift in a romantic direction.
Michael Learned confessed that the two were very tempted to feel all the feels, and let themselves fall into each other’s arms, but they restrained themselves, for fear that it might get “too messy” and ruin the show. Learned said that their chemistry turned into a love between two friends, and she named him her “spiritual husband.”
Will Geer played the Waltons’ lovable grandpa, Zebulon Tyler Walton, and he quickly charmed America with his good humor and strong opinions. Like his character, Will believed in standing up for what is right, and aside from being an actor, Will was, first and foremost, a proud activist.
He developed a profound and loving relationship with Harry Hay Jr., the founder of the Mattachine Society in 1950 and one of the first people to speak up about gay rights. Harry and Will spent a lot of time at rallies and protests in the hopes of making a substantial change in America’s views.
Mary Elizbeth McDonough played the middle sister Erin, who was supposed to be “the pretty one” on the show. This meant that a lot of pressure was being placed on her weight and looks. When the show began, Mary was 11 years old and transitioning into her teenage years so, understandably, her body was going through changes. The producers? Not so happy.
On set, Mary was confronted with questions like “Do you think you could fit in the clothes from last season, or have you gained weight?” Young and vulnerable, Mary longed for a kind word here and there, one that would reassure her that everything was ok, and that she was only growing bigger because she was maturing, and that was perfectly normal. But none of that came. She slowly began starving herself and when the series ended, she was 21, and not in a good condition at all.
The Waltons’ homey, picket fenced house became the viewers house as well. It radiated family, simple living and an overall sense of coziness. After the show ended, it went through several transformations, from being dismantled to reconstructed to becoming the Dragonfly Inn in the hit series Gilmore Girls.
Whether it’s run by Lorelai Gilmore and Sookie St. James, or a home for reuniting the Waltons, this country house holds a dear spot in our hearts. To this day, it remains on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California and is open for whoever wants to take a look.
Kami Cotler played Elizabeth Walton, the youngest of the bunch. After finishing her role as the outspoken bookworm, she took her love of reading and writing into her real life as well and attended the University of Berkeley where she majored in Social Sciences and became a teacher.
Funny enough, her first teaching job was in a small Virginia school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After a few years, she returned to California and began teaching at the Los Angeles Environmental Charter School where she became the founding principal. The brainy Walton girl has come a long way.
When the producers thought of a fatherly figure to play the role of John Walton, they thought of Henry Fonda. After his great performance as a father in the film Spencer’s Mountain, the cast searchers were set on him as the perfect match to educate the lively Walton children. But Henry had a different opinion.
After going through the pilot script, he admitted to loving the premise and what the show represented, but he felt that there wasn’t much room for a fatherly figure. He felt that it was mainly the mother and son’s show, but the casting wanted him so badly they actually rewrote some scenes just to convince him to join. But after two rewrites, he remained unsatisfied and rejected the offer altogether.
For the first few months, The Waltons were at the bottom of the TV ratings, and it seemed as though they were no match for their fierce competitors, ABC’s The Flip Wilson Show and NBC’s The Mod Squad. After some brainstorming, CBS decided to boost the show’s reputation by publishing an ad titled Help Save the Waltons.
The advertisement described how the show was on the verge of being canceled, and surprisingly, it drew in a lot of new viewers. Millions of Americans became obsessed with the show and it did so well that it quickly climbed up the charts and reached #1 at the end of the first season. Following the dramatic turnover, both The Mod Squad and The Flip Wilson show announced that it would be their last season.
Known as the stern but loving grandma of the Walton family, Esther suffered a near stroke at the end of Season Five. But this fictional event reflected the actress’s real health situation. In 1976, she suffered an actual stroke and had to be pulled from the show for a while. When she recovered enough to resume, her script and lines had to be tweaked according to her new state.
Her speech was impaired severely, and her mobility was limited, so the show shortened her lines significantly. Instead of long wordy dialogues, the viewers would have to suffice with minimal phrases like “No” or “Home.” We’re just glad we were able to see her in all of the seasons, including the reunion movies.
Following the death of his young daughter, Ralph Waite developed unhealthy habits in order to escape his painful reality. For years he struggled with his demons, juggling between being the loving role model on screen and the troubled addict off screen. But luckily, all those hours of filming around a joyous group of kids was exactly what encouraged him to make a change.
His costar and fictional eldest daughter, Judy Norton, mentioned how he confessed to being positively influenced by their presence. She claims he admitted, “I sat there one day at the kitchen table with all you kids, and I felt like such a fake.” It was just the push he needed to go to AA and get his life together again.
The kind and motherly Olivia Walton graced our screen with charm and much love. Michael Learned played the part brilliantly, but backstage she insisted on adding a bit of spice and human flaws to her character. She wanted Olivia to be more relatable to the audience, so she turned to writer Earl Hamner Jr. with some requests.
Learned asked him to add some mistakes for her to make, like punishing the wrong child or making them wear hot clothes on a sunny day. Hamner was a bit reluctant at first because he created Olivia in the shadow of his mom, and it was hard for him to recall her making any mistakes. At last he agreed to make a few changes to the script and Learned was glad to play a far from perfect Olivia.
The Waltons was Michael’s first serious acting job, which meant that her name was unknown to most of the show’s viewers. In order to avoid any confusion surrounding her gender, the producers decided to add “Miss” to her name, and for the first five seasons she appears in the opening credits with that additional touch.
Learned was in fact a “Mrs.” before coming to the show. She married in 1956 at the young age of 17 to her first husband, Peter Donat, but in 1972, the same year The Waltons premiered, the couple got divorced. Throughout her life, Learned altered between Miss and Mrs. but since 1988 she’s been married to lawyer John Doherty.
The show was filmed throughout a decade that was very different from where the world stands today with respect to sexuality. It wasn’t common for celebrities to be open and proud of who they loved if it didn’t fit the status quo, especially if you’re the picturesque model of the rural all-American family. Therefore, some of the cast members could not allow themselves to openly admit they were quite unlike their character on screen.
Years after the show ended, people learned that Grandma Walton, played by Ellen Corby, was in fact a lesbian, despite being married to one of the directors, Francis Corby. Their marriage didn’t last, and during that time she had an affair with a woman named Stella Luchetta, whom she would end up living with for 45 years. Another closeted cast member was Ellen’s fictional husband, Grandpa Walton, who was played by Will Greer. He had a long and serious relationship with Harry Hay, a well-known gay rights activist.
What began as a fictional father-son relationship, turned into an emotional get together at Jon Walmsley’s wedding with Lisa Harrison. Jon (Jason Walton) and Lisa (Toni) took their relationship off screen when they decided to get married for real in 1979. Former minister Ralph Waite, who played Jon’s TV dad, proudly officiated the event and as they tied the knot.
The outdoor ceremony was held in Malibu and the whole Waltons’ cast was present including Jon’s TV mom, Michael Learned, and all of his fictional siblings. Other guests included John Ritter, who played a minister on the series and jokingly suggested he should be the one marrying them.
John Walton Sr. played a substantial role in the show and appeared in all the episodes in the first eight seasons. So, it came as a surprise when his presence was sporadic during the last one. Out of 22 episodes, he appeared in eight of them. Naturally, viewers missed him on the show and wanted to know why he wasn’t appearing as much.
The truth is, the producers had tightened the budget, and Ralph suffered the consequences. Apparently, the ninth season of the show wasn’t part of the plan but ended up happening anyway. So, they were a bit unprepared and weren’t interested in paying the actor a generous amount for his work. Instead, they opted to make some cuts, and Ralph was one of them.
Like many child actors who grew up in the public eye, Mary McDonough was struggling to find herself when the show ended and she had to part ways with her graceful character, Erin. At 24, she decided to undergo some cosmetic changes in order to try and fit in with beauty standards and expectations. But her breast implants backfired terribly, and Mary’s healthy began to deteriorate.
She faced strenuous muscle pain, headaches and constant flu like symptoms. The truth was that her implants had ruptured and began decaying in her chest. After 10 years of pure confusion and frustration, she finally removed them. Even though she began feeling better, at age 35 her health declined yet again and she was diagnosed with Lupus, an inflammatory disease which Mary blames on her implants.
Learned’s character, Olivia Walton, clearly stated how much she disapproved of having alcohol around the house. With a stern gaze and serious tone of voice, she wouldn’t budge from her thoughts on the topic. But time and again we realize that actors are seriously good at what they do, because reality couldn’t have been more different for Michael.
Learned was an alcoholic and even auditioned with a bottle of bourbon in her pocket. She landed the part due to her convincing performance, which maybe stemmed for a genuine longing to be as good as her character Olivia. For almost six seasons, Learned depended on her drinks heavily, but luckily came around before Season Seven, when she took ten weeks off to treat herself properly and fix the problem.
Judy Norton-Taylor played the character of humble and good-mannered Mary-Ellen. Apparently, a decade of acting out such a squeaky-clean persona affected her and a few years after the show ended, she made a bold decision and posed nude for Playboy magazine’s August 1985 issue. She was done with her child-like reputation and wanted to show a different side of her.
Judy claims that she couldn’t be more different than her sweet on-screen ego, Mary-Ellen. She thrives on exciting experiences and trying new things and would go crazy spending her days on a mountain kneading bread. She enjoys skydiving and skiing and considers herself an adrenaline junkie. Fans might have been taken aback from her decision to pose nude, but, for Judy, it was just another exciting adventure she had to go on.
One move by the series’ producers left viewers completely dumb founded. The central character, John-Boy, who was played by Richard Thomas for seven seasons, was swapped by a different actor, Robert Wightman in Seasons Eight and Nine. Richard was the one who decided to leave, to pursue other interests, but many felt that the show’s replacement was terribly odd.
Some felt like it turned the show into an absurd comedy and was the weird turning point of the series. Fans claimed that they should have just left him out of the storyline altogether, because it was too unsettling seeing a new actor on screen. John-Boy was a significant part of the show, so we’re guessing that’s why production didn’t dare let his character go.
The Waltons graced our screens at a time when Hollywood was being heavily criticized for lacking morality and producing controversial content. People argued that critical values were being thrown out of the window and replaced by disreputable behavior, and the rural Virginian family seemed like the perfect counterexample.
According to the youngest Walton, Kami Cotler, the show was a direct response to such backlash. It was there to prove that television was still capable of providing wholesome and proper content to its viewers. The show had such an impact on families across America that even years after it ended, in 1992, President George Bush stated in a speech that he wished to make all families “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”