The Waltons: A Mountain Among TV Shows

We’ve been binge watching The Americans of late and so I’ve got Richard Thomas (whose birthday it is) on my mind. Nothing makes me happier than when actors manage to escape the existential trap of television success by being granted another television success. Time was, you established yourself as a certain character in a hit TV series, and then you were kind of finished. Oh sure, you worked. But you were no longer YOU, an actor with the ability to play all manner of characters. You were just that famous character. Until you died. In recent years, I think in part because so MUCH television is being produced, that’s all changed. I’ve loved seeing, for example, William Shatner on Boston Legal, or Sally Struthers on The Gilmore Girls, reinvent themselves. That said, Thomas’s role as an FBI bureau chief on The Americans does play on his apple-pie “All American” image, working with it sometimes, working against it other times.

The image was established of course on The Waltons. It would be hard to exaggerate the huge cultural role this show played throughout most of my childhood between the ages of five and fifteen. It started in 1971 with The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, one of the best TV movies of all time, an actual classic (how many TV movies can you say that about?). It was based on the autobiographical writing of Earl Hamner, which had also been adapted into the 1963 movie Spencer’s Mountain starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. Set in rural Virginia during the Depression, it concerns a large, struggling family, centered on the reflective, philosophical “John-Boy” (Thomas), an aspiring writer. (In the pilot film, the story centers around the tension of waiting for the father to arrive home during a blizzard). The Homecoming had a slightly different cast than the series: Patricia Neal had a central role as the mother in the film; and none other than Edgar Bergen played Grandpa!

Bergen as Grandpa with the kids in “The Homecoming”

The film could well have been a one-off, but for the course of history. In the preceding couple of years CBS had done something drastic, an event now known as “the Rural Purge” (we wrote about it here). An enormous and popular element in CBS’s programming schedule had been shows with rural or family themes. In an effort to be hip and au courant (and to placate sponsors) these shows were cancelled en masse in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And there was a HUGE backlash. Millions of people were pissed. So to smooth things over, they felt it necessary to create new shows for this demographic. (Little House on the Prairie and Donny and Marie would be some later examples of shows crafted for this audience.) At any rate, The Waltons was rushed into production as a series, launching in 1972. It was given a crummy time slot, opposite two extremely hip and popular shows, The Mod Squad and The Flip Wilson Show in an apparent attempt to kill it in the cradle. But The Waltons STILL proved a monster hit.

There was clearly a demand for this kind of show. But it was also extremely well made. My dad had grown up poor in the South during the Depression, so we had this to attract us, although as he never tired of reminding us, his family were much poorer than The Waltons. John Walton (Ralph Waite) was essentially a small businessman and entrepreneur; he operated a lumber mill. The family owned a truck, a nice, well-kept two story house, and a radio. (My dad’s people were sharecroppers, and had none of those things). Still both my parents had grown up in rural communities during the Depression; the element of history in the show was a source of nostalgia for them as we watched. It was almost as though the show were fighting some kind of rear guard action, as the rest of television, movies and popular music were becoming engulfed in a tidal wave of profanity, and glorification of sex and violence. It was definitely a rarity in its day.

Also tying me personally to the show was the character of John-Boy, and his aspirations. To dare to want to be a writer in a family of working people is something I related mightily to. It planted a seed. He absolutely made me want to wear glasses.  (The set-up also reminds me a lot in retrospect of Thomas Wolfe, who must have been an inspiration to Hamner. They have a lot in common).

Another of the show’s magical elements was the central role played by Will Geer as Grandpa. Geer rates his own post on this blog and shame on me for not having done it yet, but I will. If I even begin to list the amazing things Geer had done prior to The Waltons, I’ll as much as be doing a post about him, so you’ll just have to wait for it. In brief, in addition to being an actor he was an important left-wing political activist and folksinger, an associate of Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives, et al. Around the same time as The Waltons launched he also had a great turn in the Robert Redford western Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Geer had this authenticity to him. I absolutely loved him.

The show was also my introduction to veteran Hollywood actress Ellen Corby, who played Grandma Walton. She also rates her own post and will get one! Ralph Waite, as Pa, was a familiar face from films, as well. John-Boy’s mother on the series was played by Michael Learned, our introduction to the idea that a woman could be named Michael. John-Boy had six younger siblings on the show; it was tough to keep them all straight. A much-parodied device at the end of the show helped us with the chore: the house was shown in a night-time exterior and we heard all the characters say goodnight to each other. The other kids (in order of age) were: jug-eared Jason (Jon Walmsley), feisty Mary Ellen, the oldest girl (Judy Norton Taylor), the vain and dreamy Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough), Ben (Eric Scott), Jim-Bob (David W. Harper), and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), the youngest, who was memorable because she was cute and funny. These characters all got a chance to stretch their legs a bit more after around the sixth season when Geer died, Corby had a stroke, and Thomas left the series.

Some of the kids had interesting backgrounds as well. Both of Thomas’s parents were important people in the New York dance world. They performed with the New York City Ballet and ran the New York School of Ballet. So hilariously, while heavily associated with a very rustic character, he couldn’t have a more sophisticated urban background. And did you know that Jon Walmsley had been the voice of Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh specials? I did not know that! He was British by birth, and had to develop an American accent.

Hamner remained involved with the series and provided narration. Here he is with cast members Learned, Waite and Thomas:

The original show went off the air in 1981. Then there was a series of TV movies: A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain (1982), Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain (1982), A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain (1982), A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (1993), A Walton Wedding (1995), and A Walton Easter (1997).

I just played the theme song on Youtube and yeah it made me misty-eyed. It was the first time I had heard it, I think, since the show had gone off the air.

 

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