In the 1970s, the fictional Walton Family became an integral part of American television, the show that exuded family values and wholesomeness which centers around the life of the Waltons, particularly on John-Boy, a teenage boy living in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II.
The classic American period drama aired for nine seasons! Since the series came to an end nearly forty years ago, the cast members have all gone their separate ways and went on to do amazing things.
Ralph Waite – Then
Long before Ralph Waite was cast to play the role of the family patriarch, John Walton Sr., on “The Waltons.” He obtained his master’s degree from the Yale Divinity School. He decided to make quite the career change and became an actor. He acted on Broadway before turning to film.
In “The Waltons,” Ralph, as John Walton Sr., runs a family sawmill and prioritizes keeping his family together during the Great Depression and World War II. He manages to scrape together an income for his family by running a lumber mill with his son’s help.
Ralph Waite – Now
After “The Waltons” came to an end, Ralph Waite continued to perform in several films and make guest appearances on popular TV shows. He had a recurring role in Jackson Gibbs on “NCIS.” In 1995, he created the role of Will Kidder in the play “The Young Man From Atlanta.” The play won the Pulitzer Prize.
Waite also lived a full life in other ways. He was married three times and used his platform to express his views on politics. Sadly, Waite passed away on February 13, 2014, in California.
Michael Learned – Then
Before Michael Learned landed the role of the family matriarch, Olivia Walton, her acting resume was meager. “The Waltons” ended up jumpstarting and legitimizing Michael’s career as an actress and she was nominated for six Emmy Awards, taking home three of the awards.
Learned’s disappearance was in part due to suffering from tuberculosis and leaving to get treated in a sanatorium.
Michael Learned – Now
After playing Mrs. Walton, Learned has continued to act. She experienced success in daytime television, playing a terminally ill cancer patient, Shirley Smith, on General Hospital. She also took over the role of Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless.
Starkly different from her T.V. character, behind the scenes on “The Waltons,” Learned was battling alcoholism abuse. Michael had three children with her first husband, actor Peter Donat. She’s currently married to lawyer John Doherty and they live together in California.
Richard Thomas – Then
Before getting cast as the star of the show, John-Boy, 20-year-old Richard Thomas already had an impressive resume, including both works on television and films. One of his first major film roles was in “Winning” in 1969, where he played alongside Paul Newman.
The role of John-Boy was based on the real-life of Earl Hamner Jr., the writer of the show. John-Boy is a contemplative character and reader who has dreams of becoming a writer. He journals his thoughts about daily life and family.
Richard Thomas – Now
Richard experienced a successful theater career after leaving “The Waltons.” In 1980, he appeared on the “Fifth of July.” In 1993, he played the main role in “Richard II.” He also performed in four plays at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 2009-2010, Thomas appeared in the Broadway play “Race” by David Mamet. He acted alongside James Spader, Kerry Washington, and David Alan Grier.
Jon Walmsley – Then
Before John Walmsley was cast as Jason Walton on “The Waltons,” he voiced Christopher Robin’s Winnie the Pooh cartoons. Although John-Boy and Jason Walton have very different personalities, the two brothers have a very close relationship.
In the show, Jason is passionate about music and enjoys composing music on the piano, guitar, and harmonica. In season three of the series, he studies at the Kleinberg Conservatory of Music. He also starts working at a honky-tonk tavern, playing the piano.
Jon Walmsley – Now
After finishing his long run on the show, Walmsley has put his energy towards his music career. He has composed music for “8 Simple Rules,” “7th Heaven,” and “Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
Throughout his time as a composer and musician, he has worked with several big musicians, including David Koz, Peter and Gordon, Merle Haggard, Richard Marx, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and co-founder of The Beach Boys, Al Jardine.
Judy Norton Taylor – Then
Before Judy Norton-Taylor landed the role of Mary Ellen Walton on “The Waltons,” she was a novice actress without much experience. Judy started learning and practicing Scientology from the young age of 13. She subsequently became a minister in the church.
The oldest daughter of the family is Mary Ellen. She was a tomboy that loved playing baseball. As the series went on, Mary Ellen became a wise woman who worked toward obtaining her nursing degree and eventually became a doctor. From a tomboy to a doctor, Mary Ellen’s character was an inspiration.
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 her sibling on the show, she had a love for music, so she rekindled it and made a demo at one point.
In 1985, she posed for Playboy in an attempt to shed her wholesome “family” image. Today, she is married to her husband Robert Graves and has one son, Devin.
Eric Scott – Then
Eric Scott’s most well-known role to date was as fifth-born child Ben Walton on The Waltons. His parents named him Eric Scott in honor of his uncle, who was killed in WWI. Ben often gets into trouble, especially due to his money-making ventures. John-Boy or his father has to come to his aid to bail him out.
Ben ends up marrying Cindy Brunson, and they have two children together, a daughter Virginia, and a son, Charles, who is born in the second reunion movie.
Eric Scott – Now
Like many of his colleagues on The Waltons, Eric Scott pretty much left the acting world after playing Ben and appeared in only a few small roles. He was married for a short time to actress Karey Louis and remarried Theresa Fargo, with whom he had a daughter, Ashley.
In 2001, Scott married once again to Cindy Ullman Wolfen. The couple had a baby girl together in 2001 and a son in 2004. It doesn’t seem like Eric Scott is missing his life as an actor much, and he seems to be enjoying family life.
Mary Beth McDonough – Then
Her role as Erin Esther Walton on The Waltons was Mary Elizabeth McDonough’s first major acting role. Erin Esther Walton is the fourth oldest child of Olivia and John. Erin is a romantic who has difficulty finding where she belongs.
After she graduated from high school, she goes to business school and ends up becoming a plant’s executive manager during the war. She is in several relationships, which all end equally bad, including her marriage to Paul Northridge, who proves to be unfaithful in their relationship.
Mary Beth McDonough – Now
After her time on The Waltons, McDonough had several guest appearances on popular TV shows like The Love Boat, ER, Ally McBeal, Walker, Texas Ranger, The West Wing, Boston Legal, and Will & Grace. She also starred in The New Adventures of Old Christine as Mrs. Wilhoite.
Besides her acting career, Mary is a guest on radio and has been on several syndicated and international radio shows, like ‘Get Focused Radio’ with Kate Hennessy. She married Rob Wickstrom in 1988, and the two had a daughter, Sydnee, but they divorced in 1996.
David Harper – Then
David W. Harper is best known as the youngest Walton boy, Jim-Bob. He’s closest to his younger sister, Elizabeth. Jim-Bob has a hand for mechanics and loves aviation. He has high hopes of becoming a pilot but must give up his dream because of poor eyesight.
Throughout the show, we see Jim-Bob bounce around between several girlfriends. Jim-Bob graduates high school as the class valedictorian. He wants to enlist in the Army after the Pearl Harbor attack but is rejected because of his young age.
David Harper – Now
After sticking with the series for the duration of its nine-season run, Harper, like many of his on-screen family members, chose to lighten up on his acting load. Since the show, he has appeared in the CBS television miniseries, “The Blue and the Gray.”
Along with many of his co-stars, he appeared in several reunion specials throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Kami Cotler – Then
The baby of the Walton family, adorable Kami Cotler, was only six-years-old when the series started. She stars as the youngest child of Olivia and John, Elizabeth Tyler Walton. She is a free-spirited, feisty little girl who has no problem speaking her mind.
When she grows up to be a teenager, she’s very fond of books and writing. Elizabeth is very helpful and often babysits her nieces and nephews. Later on in the series, her free-spirit persona leads her to travel around Europe and join the Peace Corps.
Kami Cotler – Now
Kami Cotler retired acting in pursuit of an academic path. She enrolled at the University of California, Berkley, and got her degree in Social Sciences. She became a teacher and ironically started to work in a rural Virginia school, similar to the school that her character on Waltons attended.
Kami later moved back to California to teach at an Environmental Charter High School and then became co-director of the Ocean Charter School until 2007 when she retired from the school system in order to start her own educational consulting business.
Ralph Waite Was Fired Because the Network Was Cheap
Originally, the show wasn’t supposed to continue on for a ninth season. However, after setting a lower budget, the producers ended up proceeding with the last season. They needed more money, so they did the most logical thing; they let go of the highest-paid actor, Ralph Waite.
So, if you’re wondering why Waite was missing… you can blame the network for being cheap!
Ellen Corby Returned After a Stroke
Some actors are so dedicated to their careers that something as serious as a stroke doesn’t keep them out of the game for too long. When Grandma Esther, AKA Ellen Corby, had a stroke in 1976, she left the show for two years in order to care for her health.
Patricia Neal Was in the Original Cast
In the 1971 pilot of the TV show, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, Patricia Neal played Olivia Walton. Patricia won a Golden Globe for her performance. Earl Hamner was doubtful of Neal’s ability to commit to the schedule of a weekly TV series because of her health issues.
So, Michael Learned was awarded the role, which, as we know by now, was a very positive thing for the series and Learned’s career.
Henry Fonda Talked Himself Out Of A Role
Henry Fonda was in “Spencer’s Mountain” in 1963, which served as inspiration for “The Waltons.” Fonda was potentially going to play the father of the Waltons, and CBS executives thought that he could be a great fit. However, he made a comment which eventually rubbed them the wrong way and ruined his chances of getting cast.
When Fonda watched the pilot show, he said, “What do you want me for? The whole family is the star! You don’t need me.” So… yeah… not really the thing to say if you’re trying to get cast!
A Case of Mistaken Identity
In the time that “The Waltons aired,” it was common for sitcoms to be called by the last name of the family. When you saw a show with the last name, you knew you were about to watch a sitcom. “The Waltons” definitely was by no means a sitcom, so that confused early viewers.
Even so, the show was a big hit with millions of viewers around the country.
The Father And Son Connection
“The Waltons” was Waite and Thomas’s first time working together. Ralph Waite and Richard Thomas acted together on Last Summer. Three years after that, they once again collaborated as the father-son duo in the series. It was clear that the pair had good chemistry together.
Before the show, Ralph Waite and Richard Thomas both starred together on Last Summer. It was only three years later, that they teamed up again as a father-son duo. You know the old saying if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. So clearly, their chemistry was on point and audiences liked them together.
Olivia Walton Loved the Bottle
Despite that on the series, Learned bashed alcohol and labeled it as evil, in real life, she felt quite differently. Well, maybe she still thought it was a toxic substance, but that didn’t stop her from engaging in alcohol abuse. She even showed up to her audition with a bottle of bourbon in her pocket.
Despite this, she was able to convince the producers that she was the perfect fit for the job.
Jon Walmsley Was Born in England
While Jon Walmsley sounded like he was born in the United States, he was actually born in Lancashire, England. When he was very young, his family made the trek across the pond to start life in the U.S.
While Walsmely could have followed in the footsteps of other actors who faked their American accents, he didn’t have to. He was young enough when he moved that he didn’t retain any of his English accent.
The Studio Took Advantage of the Cast
It was no lie that the studio was very cheap, especially with the cast members. Just to illustrate for you how cheap the studio was — apparently, their idea of a party consisted of having one beer and 13 straws for cast members. While we assume that this is probably an exaggeration, the studio had the reputation of being very stingy.
Even though the studio had a stingy reputation, they did send flowers to Michael Learned once. That must have really been difficult for them, considering their tight budget.
Ralph Waite Fell in Love with the Cast
Ralph Waite attributes becoming sober in large part to his cast on “The Waltons.” What’s that song, love is all you need? Well, it seems to have been the kicker to push past his alcohol issues.
But, as time went on and he grew more and more committed to the series, his TV family helped encourage him to make a big change in his life. He decided to turn his life around and sign up for AA to become sober. But more on that later.
Michael and Ralph Attempted To Date… It Was Too Awkward
Remember when Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel attempted to bring to life their fictional relationship as Cory and Topanga in “Boy Meets World?” Well, just like it didn’t work out for the two, Michael and Ralph were also not successful in their relationship attempt.
It was true that the two had good chemistry on the screen, but when they both found themselves single and attempting to date in real life, it was too weird and they came to the mutual agreement that it wouldn’t work out between them.
Grandpa Was Proud
Will Geer, the actor behind Grandpa Zebulon Walton, dedicated his life to so much more than just acting. As a member of the gay community, Geer also dedicated his life to activism. He was in a relationship with Harry Hay, a prominent activist focused on gay rights, labor rights, Native American civil rights, and other notable causes.
Geer himself was a labor organizer in New York and Southern California during the 30s and 40s. He organized benefits for migrant workers and toured work camps. Although he died in 1978, his notable work as an activist lives on.
AND… He Was a Communist
Being gay wasn’t his only secret. Zeb was also a communist! He would campaign on behalf of striking workers. Soon he found out that the Communist party was homophobic so he had to come to terms with marrying a woman.
In 1950s Geer was blacklisted for not testifying before the House Committee.
Mary Ellen’s Playboy Spread Ended up Ruining Her Career
Often times, a famous woman will take to a Playboy photoshoot in hopes of it salvaging their career. It seems to work for some stars like Kim K. But, for others, it prevents their career from ever taking off again. Mary Ellen’s Playboy stint definitely didn’t jump-start her acting career again.
Ironically enough, it proved to be the barrier that would prevent her from getting more acting work. Interviews always tended to focus on her being in Playboy rather than her acting. Mary Ellen later admitted that being in the magazine wasn’t a good idea.
Mary McDonough Got Sick
After Mary McDonough played Erin Walton on the series, she had a breast augmentation. Whether she did that in order to transition from her role on the series wasn’t confirmed. Unfortunately, the operation didn’t work out in her favor.
The surgery didn’t go smoothly and led to her developing Lupus, which she claims to be caused by leaking silicone breast implants.
Ralph Waite Attempted To Become a Politician after the Show Ended
After Ralph Waite finished on the show, he hoped to pursue a completely different path than acting. He wanted to become a politician. Well, the third time didn’t prove to be the charm for the actor and he failed running three times for Congress in California.
Apparently, he didn’t use his celebrity status to win over voters, as most other celebrities would do in his position.
The Show’s Success Was a Huge Surprise To CBS
Oddly enough, CBS did not expect the show to become the success that it was. They had little faith in the show and thought that it wouldn’t come close to popular shows put out by NBC and ABC.
Surprisingly to them, the show ended up beating shows by other networks and was ranked very highly.
The Waltons’ House Would Eventually Become the Gilmore Inn
The house in which the Walton family lived in was offered to several shows and movies after the series ended. But, one show ended up getting the rights to the home. “The Gilmore Girls” used the home as the Dragonfly Inn.
Show Creator Earl Hamner Jr. Drew Familiar Inspiration for the Show
People who create things for a living need constant inspiration. In this case, the creator of the show was inspired by his own family. He had seven siblings and said that he was John-Boy in real life.
Creator of Seinfeld, Larry David, also based George off himself so this practice isn’t out of the ordinary.
The Show’s Timeline Was Constantly Messed Up
Making mistakes happen, even for big-timers like television producers. The producers on “The Waltons” made several mistakes regarding the timeline of the show. There were several inconsistencies throughout the show regarding the characters’ ages.
Messing up may be a part of life, as the producers of the show confused the order of the timeline. This included things like anniversaries and overall the cast members’ ages. One excellent example is when John-Boy wasn’t able to enlist in the Army even though he was 19.
The Original John-Boy Made Regular Appearances As Different Characters
The original actor, Richard Thomas was meant to play John-Boy for five seasons but he ended up making a guest appearance in season six and coming back for the movie sequels. He was replaced for seasons 8-9 by actor, Robert Wightman. That must have been very confusing for viewers!
The original John-Boy was supposed to play him for five seasons but he was replaced by a different actor, Robert Wightman. You would think that he wouldn’t come back on the show but he did as a different character. That must have been weird for him changing roles on the same TV show.
The Youngest Walton Quit Acting and Found a New Career
As we mentioned earlier, Kami Cotler decided she was done with acting altogether after her time on “The Waltons.” As the youngest member of the Walton family, the star had plenty of time left after the show was canceled to build a real career in acting. Instead, she chose a career in academics.
Years after the show was off the air, Cotler founded a charter school in Gardena, California. She also acted as the principal, pursuing a passion that fulfilled her more than her job as an actress.
John Officiated Jason’s Wedding
Before he was an actor, Ralph Waite was an ordained minister. You might think that his duties as a man of God didn’t play a role in his career onscreen, but they did come in handy when co-star John Walmsley married his wife.
Since the cast was so close, Walmsley invited everyone to the wedding. Not only that, but he also invited Waite to officiate the ceremony. He got to celebrate with the people he grew up with, and he also got to hear Ralph Waite make the official pronouncement of “man and wife.”
Reunion for Earl Hammer
In 2016, the show’s creator Earl Hammer passed away after his battle with cancer at the age of 92. To commemorate his life and work, the show aired a reunion of the CBS drama from 2013.
Some people may think the show was overly sentimental but this is exactly what made the show so groundbreaking, the fact that is was wholesome and honored family values.
Grandma had a girlfriend
Here’s something that would have caused quite the stir within the Walton family; Grandma was gay! Ellen Corby played Esther Walton in the show and took home three Emmy awards for her performance. She married her husband, Francis Corby, in 1934 and the two never had children, eventually divorcing in 1944.
Well, turns out that Ellen had a female partner of 45 years who lived with her up until her death in 1999. It was known in Hollywood that the two ladies were more than just friends. Ellen’s final words were to her girlfriend, Stella Luchetta, and they were “I love you.”
As was normal back in the 70s, the younger cast members feel that they were often underappreciated and taken advantage of during filming. The young actor Eric Scott, stated, “We didn’t get paid well on that show.” Eric Scott struggled to find acting work after the show ended, and the only job he could find was as a courier.
He worked hard and climbed the ladder and eventually went on to run the company. David Harper also couldn’t find work after “The Waltons” and worked as a crew member behind the scenes.
The Walton’s Mountain
The “Walton’s Mountain” was actually shot in the Hollywood Hills south of the Warner Bros property. The exterior of the family home was also located on the studio lot. The original Walton home was set aflame by a disgruntled crew worker, back in 1991.
Warner Bros decided to rebuild the house to use in the Walton reunion special that aired in 1993.
Earl Hamner’s House Was Bought By Fans
Earl Hamner’s home that served as the basis for the TV show “The Waltons” has been bought by long-time Walton enthusiast Carole Johnson. The Hamner home has been preserved for viewings and will remain open to the public.
For fans interested, there are guided tours, as well as new items on display that bridge the gap between the real home and how it was depicted on the TV show.
‘The Waltons’ Brought The End Of Flip Wilson’s Show
The boisterous comedian’s talk show had reigned in second-place in television ratings for four consecutive years when “The Waltons” premiered and became a surprising success, beating Flip out of the top 30 and securing their spot in second place.
Rather than let his show carry on and suffer from the competition, Flip Wilson sadly announced that it would be their last season.
The Kids Helped Ralph Get A Fresh Start
Judy Norton, who played the eldest daughter, Mary Ellen Walton, said in an interview that the cast of the children softened their fictional father’s heart in reality and helped him finally battle the inner demons he’d been carrying for years.
“He said, ‘I sat there one day at the kitchen table with all you kids and I felt like such a phony.’ He took himself to AA and got sober,” she revealed.
John Ritter saved Mary McDonough’s life
Mary McDonough played Erin Walton, who was often considered “the pretty one” of the Walton sisters. After a while, the moniker took a toll on Mary. Feeling outside pressure to remain thin, McDonough developed an eating disorder.
At one point, McDonough’s struggles with food got so bad that she developed an ulcer and her hair began to thin. Although she tried to hide it from the cast, John Ritter confronted her about the issue. Ritter insisted that she start a journal and McDonough later said his interference saved her life.
The Show was Timed Perfectly
When the show got its start on television, the country was in the middle of congressional hearings. The hearings were focused on morality on television at the time, as many people felt that shows weren’t as conservative as they should have been.
According to Kami Cotler, The Waltons was a direct reaction to that idea. In a time when people were arguing that there wasn’t any morality in Hollywood, The Waltons was a wholesome series focused on old-fashioned family values.