The Waltons was one of the best shows of its time back in the ’70s. The series was created by Earl Hamner Jr., who based the show on his book Spencer’s Mountain. The Waltons first invaded our living rooms on December 19, 1971, and was seen through the eyes of John-Boy who was the oldest son.
The Waltons was a favorite thanks to its family values and engaging episodes. Although the series ended in 1981, the decades-worth of episodes remain a nostalgic favorite amongst many viewers. Join us as we take a look at some of the most interesting behind-the-scenes facts about The Waltons, including where the cast is today!
Michael Learned – Then
Olivia was played by actress Michael Learned. Born in Washington D.C., Learned made her acting debut in two episodes of Wojeck in 1968. Four years later she would land her role on The Waltons, which solidified her space in Hollywood. She appeared in the dramatic show for a whopping 168 episodes.
The patient and loving wife, Olivia, complemented John Walton’s tough-guy persona. The soft-spoken wife had seven children: John Walton Jr., Jason Walton, Mary Ellen Walton, Erin Esther Walton, Benjamin Walton II, James Robert Walton, and Elizabeth Tyler Walton.
Michael Learned – Now
These days, the Emmy winner has tons to keep her busy. Between her three kids, a husband, five grandchildren and sporadic appearances on TV shows, Learned is an active woman.
She has often been seen on the popular and beloved soap opera The Young and the Restless.
Ralph Waite – Then
John Walton Sr. had many opinions and was your regular ol’ tough guy. He cared for his children very much and worked diligently to ensure that all of his kids would one day go off to college and make a life for themselves. He ran a saw mill on Walton’s Mountain to support his family.
The patriarch of the Walton family was played by actor Ralph Waite. Waite was born in White Plains, New York and 1928 and made his acting debut in the ’50s, eventually scoring roles in the likes of Cool Hand Luke and Five Easy Pieces.
Ralph Waite – Now
Ralph Waite had a steady career after The Waltons. He was a recurring character on NCIS as Jackson Gibbs and snagged a role for 98 episodes of Days of our Lives. A fun fact: he ran for Congress back in the ’90s but did not get elected.
Waite was married three times throughout his life and had three daughters from his first marriage.
Richard Thomas – Then
He was known as John-Boy in the series but his real name was John Walton Jr. John-Boy was the oldest of the children and he also narrated the show.
John-Boy was played by actor Richard Thomas. Thomas was born in Manhattan and made his Broadway debut in Sunrise at Campobello when he was just eight years old. His TV debut was in A Doll’s House, and he scored his role in The Waltons a decade later.
Richard Thomas – Now
Richard Thomas is talented not only in front of the camera but behind it as well. He directed five episodes of The Waltons as well produced four TV movies. Since his time on the series, he has been in more than a dozen TV shows and movies.
His most recent starring role was in The Americans in which he played the Frank Gaad. On top on acting and directing, Thomas is heavily involved in theater and in 2017 appeared in the Broadway revival of The Little Foxes. He won a Tony for his performance. Thomas married in 1975 and he and his wife welcomed triplet daughters in 1981.
Eric Scott – Then
Ben Walton had one of the more wild storylines to follow on The Waltons. He would often fall for get rich quick schemes, forcing his dad and brother to come to his rescue. The character appeared throughout the entire series and all six movies.
Before working on The Waltons Scott was a struggling actor. The television pilot movie for the show was actually his first gig. He is one of the only original actors to transition from the first movie to the television show.
Eric Scott – Now
With the show in his rearview mirror, Eric Scott quit acting as a full-time job and got into business for himself. He started Chase Messengers, a parcel delivery service in Encino California that’s still serving customers today.
Scott has been married three times, first to actress Karey Louis. He married his current wife, Cynthia Ullman Wolfen, in 2000.
Mary Beth McDonough – Then
Erin Walton was the second daughter of the Walton family and was played by Mary Beth McDonough. The character looked up to her bigger sister Mary even though they would constantly get into fights.
By the end of the series, Erin worked her way up from part-time employee to executive manager. And when the final credits rolled, she happily employed as a school principal, working to shape the future. McDonough was cast on The Waltons in 1972 and stayed with the show until it was canceled in 1981.
Mary Beth McDonough – Now
Mary Beth McDonough continued to act with great success after The Waltons ended. She appeared on a variety of series including ER, Will and Grace, and Boston Legal. She also worked as a consultant and correspondent for Entertainment Tonight.
Most recently McDonough had her book Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane was turned into a Hallmark Channel original movie starring Colin Ferguson. She made a supporting appearance in the made for television movie about siblings coming together for Christmas after their parents died.
Jon Walmsley – Then
Jason Walton was close with his family but had a special bond with John-Boy. That is strange because they had two completely personalities and interests. He was first written as introverted but slowly blossomed into a social person once he started playing instruments. By season 7 he had settled down with a woman and had a few children with her.
Jason was played by actor Jon Walmsley. Walmsley was born in Lancashire, England and made his acting debut in Combat! in 1966. He would star in a handful of other series prior to joining the cast of The Waltons, including Daniel Boone, My Three Sons, and The Bill Cosby Show.
Jon Walmsley – Now
He did love music in the show so it makes sense that he loves it in real life. Walmsley is a guitarist for the band The Ravers who play vintage British rock music. He has worked with high profile names like David Koz and Brian Setzer. When he made a return for The Waltons specials, he concentrated more on his music than acting.
Walmsley also lent his voice to the Winnie the Pooh cartoons, voicing the character of Christopher Robin.
The Youngest Walton Quit Acting and Found a New Career
Referenced earlier, Kami Cotler did not continue acting after the show’s end. She was featured in the reunion movies but chose to keep teaching and become the founding principal of a charter school in Gardena, California.
She also established an educational consulting busines and ran her own boutique travel company. She is married and has two children. It was impressive of her to follow her heart and do what she loved.
Judy Norton Taylor – Then
The oldest daughter of the family is Mary Ellen. She was a tomboy that loved playing baseball. She also started off as a whiny teenager. As the series came along, Mary Ellen became a wise woman who worked toward obtaining her nursing degree and eventually became a doctor. From tomboy to doctor, Mary Ellen’s character was an inspiration.
Mary Ellen was played by actress Judy Norton Taylor. Born in Santa Monica, California she made her acting debut in Hole in 1967 and then starred in Felony Squad and The Homecoming: A Christmas Story before joining The Waltons.
Judy Norton Taylor – Now
After The Waltons ended, Judy Norton Taylor turned to the stage. She went north of the border and directed more than 40 different shows for two theater companies in Canada.
Like another of her siblings on the show, she had a love for music so she rekindled it and made a demo at one point.
Ralph Waite Was Fired Because the Network Was Cheap
At the end of the eighth season of The Waltons, there wasn’t supposed to be a ninth. It was at the last minute that CBS decided to bring the show back, which put producers in a pickle. Not only was the show coming back, but the budget per episode was getting slashed!
To solve their problem, Ralph Waite’s contract was not renewed. He was the highest-earning cast member, making him the most expendable. It might not have been a fun move to make, but it proved to be the right one at the time.
Ellen Corby Returned After a Stroke
After suffering from a stroke, actress Ellen Corby was forced to leave The Waltons. Doctors told her she needed to take care of her health, and she was scared that her condition would decrease her acting skills.
As it turned out, her acting abilities were better than ever, and Corby was able to return to the cast. Fans voiced their concerns for her health, but her co-stars stuck by her side, saying that returning to acting was the healthiest decision she could make.
Patricia Neal Was in the Original Cast
In the pilot for The Waltons, actress Patricia Neal was cast as Olivia Walton. Unfortunately, Neal had a history of health problems that got in the way of her being able to reliably show up on set. Neal’s loss, however, turned out to be Michael Learned’s reward.
Learned, who wound up being perfect for the role of Olivia was cast after Neal was forced to leave. The sad situation worked out in the best interest of the show, which wouldn’t have felt the same without Learned in the role of the family matriarch.
Henry Fonda Talked Himself Out Of A Role
Legendary actor Henry Fonda almost found himself in The Waltons. He was just about to be cast as the father of the family when he made a mistake with his mouth. CBS loved Fonda and eagerly showed him the pilot to convince him to sign on.
It was the pilot, though, that made Fonda back out. After watching it he said, “What do you want me for? The whole family is the star! You don’t need me.” With that, Fonda walked away, leaving the door open for another actor to take the role.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
When The Waltons came out in 1971, it faced quite an interesting problem. At the time, most shows that were named after families were half-hour comedies. Viewers who tuned in to the first season were left confused about why an hour-long drama wasn’t named like an hour-long drama.
It didn’t take long for audiences to understand what was happening though, and they loved the show. The Waltons was an instant hit and was very quickly one of the highest rated shows on television.
The Father And Son Connection
Before uniting as father and son on The Waltons, actors Richard Thomas and Ralph Waite and played father and son before. Three years before the show premiered they in Last Summer together.
There’s an old saying that goes, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” They may have been playing different characters on The Waltons, but the father and so “bond” was so strong, there was no point to tear them apart. As it turns out, their relationship went far beyond the television set.
Jon Walmsley Was Born in England
Jon Walmsley may have played a true-blooded American on television, but in the real world, the actor’s blood ran British. He was born in Lancashire, England, although you would never know it from listening to him speak.
Before Walmsley could develop an accent, his family moved back to the United States. Still, even if he did have an accent, he would have probably been able to hide his true voice for American Audiences. That’s what most actors do who come from across the pond.
The Studio Took Advantage of the Cast
While in production on the show, CBS wanted to spend as little money as possible. We guess that’s just what happens when you create a show about a Depression-era family; you want to keep them as depressed as possible for authenticity purposes.
One joke that made it off the set of the show is that the idea of a crew party was to have a single beer and 13 straws. Michael Learned did admit to being gifted flowers as a gift once, but none of the kids on the cast ever got anything so nice.
Ralph Waite Fell in Love with the Cast
Thanks to the cast of The Waltons, Ralph Waite was able to turn his life around. It goes to show that love can be a strong force in one’s life. At the beginning of the show, Waite was struggling with addiction.
But the love he had for his TV family helped him turn over a new leaf. The story goes taht one time at the dinner table with the children around he chose to sign up for AA and become sober.
Michael and Ralph Attempted To Date… It Was Too Awkward
Being a loving couple on television meant one thing off-screen for Ralph Waite and Michael Learned – they began growing feelings for each other. Their chemistry in the show was undeniable, but when they tried to make things real it didn’t quite work out.
The two met in Malibu for a date and there was a flatline of feelings. According to the actors, the entire event turned into a giant staring content. Both were smart people, so they decided not to force a relationship that wasn’t really there.
Ralph Waite Attempted To Become a Politician after the Show Ended
Late into his life, Ralph Waite decided he wanted to make a difference in the world and jumped into rough waters of politics. He was affiliated with the Democratic Party and ran for office unsuccessfully on three occasions in the ’90s.
They say the third time is the charm, but for Waite is proved to be fool’s old. He was able to use his celebrity status to help his party win over voters who were on the fence about who to vote for in other elections, though.
The Show’s Success Was a Huge Surprise To CBS
Although The Waltons turned out to be a major hit for CBS, the news took the studio by surprise. Even though they greenlit the show, CBS was sure it would and pitted it against highly-rated shows to help bury it.
Despite their best efforts to ruin The Waltons, the show beat its competitors in the timeslot, proving well written and acted television programming will always win over the hearts of viewers, especially in the ’70s!
The Waltons’ House Would Eventually Become the Gilmore Inn
The house The Waltons lived in was tossed around to other shows and movies after the show ended but one show, in particular, claimed it as their own.
It was called the Dragonfly Inn on the hit show The Gilmore Girls. And even though it was renovated it still kept much of its storied TV history.
Show Creator Earl Hamner Jr. Drew Familiar Inspiration for the Show
The set that The Waltons was shot on was used after the show ended by some surprising new tenents. When The Gilmore Girls debuted on the WB Network, the Gilmore Inn was actually the Walton household. Did you ever make the connection?
Probably not. Before opening as the Gilmore Inn, the Waltons’ household needed to be remodeled for its new family. The new show ran for seven seasons and was eventually brought back for mini-series on Netflix.
The Show’s Timeline Was Constantly Messed Up
After nine seasons it can be hard to keep track of things, especially time. The timeline of The Waltons was as messy as they come. No one ever wrote down important dates such as birthdays and anniversaries, so we guess they never happened?
One major instance of this messed up timeline is when John-Boy was unable to sign up for the army. In the show, he was denied because of his age, even though the character was 19-years-old. Which is old enough.
The Original John-Boy Made Regular Appearances As Different Characters
In the original movie, John-Boy was played by a different actor than in the television show. To honor the original actor, the crew had him guest star as several different characters throughout the show’s history.
You might think the actor would be angry about being recast and not agree to it, but he was fine. His name was Robert Wightman and he must have been pretty talented to become so many different characters over the years!