Created by Earl Hammer Jr., The Waltons first hit airwaves on December 19, 1971. The show debuted on CBS as a movie and ending up running for ten years. NBC then picked up the rights to The Waltons and produced six more TV movies.
Without question, the lives of this Virginia family living through the depression left an indelible mark on audiences and a legacy that still endures today. 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!
Then – Jon Walmsley
Jon Walmsley played Jason Walton, another character who evolved quite a bit during the series run. Portrayed as having a close bond with John Boy despite their different interests, Jason was first introverted until he discovered a love for music.
By the seventh season of the show, Jason was married with a family of his own. Before being cast in The Waltons, Walmsley worked on several other shows, making his debut in 1966 in Combat! on ABC.
Now – Jon Walmsley
Like the character he played, Jon Walmsley had a love for music in real life. He played with the British rock group The Ravers and has worked alongside industry icons including Brian Setzer. Of course, he also never left his roots behind and has participated in several Waltons reunions.
Did we mention Jason Walton isn’t the only character he’s famous for playing? In 1977 he was the voice of Christopher Robin in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The film was comprised of several Pooh animated shorts.
Then – Mary Beth McDonough
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.
Now – Mary Beth McDonough
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.
Then – Eric Scott
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.
Now – Eric Scott
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. His second marriage ended in tragedy when his wife, Theresa Fargo, lost her battle with myelomonocytic leukemia. He married his current wife, Cynthia Ullman Wolfen, in 2000.
Then – Michael Learned
Michael Learned played Olivia Walton, the wife, on The Waltons. The role was career-defining and earned her three Emmy Awards. Olivia was the perfect foil for John Waltons “tough-guy” persona, knowing when to break out of her soft-spoken shell.
For the first six seasons of the show, she was credited as Miss Michael Learned, because producers feared fans would become confused about her gender. By the sixth season of the show, the concern was gone and they dropped the “Miss” label.
Now – Michael Learned
Today, Learned is a very active woman. She is a grandmother of five and continues to make appearances on television. Most recently she was featured on the popular soap opera The Young and the Restless for 13 episodes. She was also on General Hospital for 21 episodes.
In 2002 Learned revealed that while filming The Waltons she made the decision to quit drinking. To get sober, she spent time on the coast of California in what she described as a spiritual journey.
Then – Ralph Waite
Ralph Waite was born in White Plains New York in 1928 and was perfectly cast as the patriarch of the Walton family. He started acting in the ’50s and had a supporting role in Cool Hand Luke before being hired to star in The Waltons.
As the father of the family, John Walton Sr. worked hard to ensure the happiness of his wife and seven children. He has a “tough-guy” persona and ran a sawmill to pay the bills and send his children off to college.
Now – Ralph Waite
In 2014, Ralph Waite sadly passed away from natural causes. He was 85-years-old at the time and was living in Palm Desert, California. He continued to act until his death, making his last appearance on Days of our Lives the same year.
In the early ’90s, Waite became more politically active and ran for Congress in California, challenging then GOP incumbent Al McCandles. He lost but continued to stay involved in politics, running again in a special election in Palm Springs in 1998.
Then – Richard Thomas
John-Boy was the oldest child on The Waltons and the whole series was told from his perspective. That meant casting him was especially crucial to the success of the show. The character had dreams of being a writer and moved to New York for college after graduating from high school.
Actor Richard Thomas played John-Boy, being cast one decade after making his screen debut as an eight-year-old in A Doll’s House. For his performance he was nominated for several Emmy awards, winning once.
Now – Richard Thomas
Since the end of his career-defining role, Richard Thomas has continued to work both in front of and behind the camera. Most recently he wrapped up his role as Frank Gaad on The Americans, one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time.
Thomas has also worked on Broadway and even won a Tony award in 2017 for his performance in The Little Foxes. He has been married twice and has five children, three of whom are triplets.
Then – Judy Norton Taylor
Played by actress Judy Norton Taylor, Mary Ellen Walton was the oldest daughter of the family. When the show began, her character was a whiny teenager. As the series progressed and her character evolved she got her nursing degree and became a doctor.
Taylor was born in Santa Monica, California, and made her acting debut in Hole in 1967. She then appeared in Felony Squad before being cast as one of the main characters in The Waltons.
Now – Judy Norton Taylor
Judy Norton Taylor did not stay in Hollywood once The Waltons ended. Instead, she took her talents to Canada where she directed over 40 stage productions for two different theatre companies. She also recorded music and made her own demo.
In 1985, looking to shed her Waltons image, Taylor posed for Playboy. Today, the former actress is happily married and raising a family with her husband, Robert Graves. The marriage is her fourth, and hopefully her last.
Then – David Harper
Another actor who made the transition from the movie to the television series was David Harper. He played Jim-Bob and was the second youngest child in the family. Tragically, Jim-Bob was born as a twin, but his brother died at birth.
When CBS decided to turn the movie into a television series, it was clear they needed to bring Harper back to play Jim-Bob. He appeared in 212 episodes of the series but did not return for the preceding six movies.
Now – David Harper
With The Waltons over, Harper found success fleeting. He managed to snag a few roles, including one in the movie Fletch but was never able to recapture his Walton glory days. His last professional role was as “Pay-Off guy” in the 1986 movie 3:15.
Since leaving show business behind Harper has worked a variety of jobs and went back to school to get his degree in finance. He also makes public appearances at Walton-related events such as memorabilia fairs.
Then – Kami Cotler
Being cast in the role of Elizabeth Walton when she was six years old was a huge break in Kami Cotler’s career. Originally cast in the role for the movie, she was carried over onto the show as a cast regular and was featured in 212 episodes.
Her character, Elizabeth, was the youngest of the Walton children and was notable for being very loud and very rambunctious. When she grew up, Elizabeth began traveling, and in the series finale, she became engaged to her boyfriend.
Now – Kami Cotler
With the conclusion of The Waltons, Kami Cotler took her talents away from Hollywood. She quit acting, only returning to reprise the role of Elizabeth Walton in television movies. With the world in front of her, Cotler decided she wanted to save it.
Cotler got her degree in social sciences and began a teaching career. She focused mostly on environmentalism and even helped found the Environment Charter Middle School in California. Today she still lives in California and continues to spread her earth-friendly message.
Ralph Waite Wanted Too Much Money
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 movie to make, but it proved to be the right one at the time.
Ellen Corby Had 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.
Ellen Corby Smoked… A Lot
Having a stroke wasn’t the only controversial thing that ever happened to Ellen Corby. While filming The Waltons, Corby married director Francis Corby, but she wasn’t actually in love with him. Behind the scenes of their marriage, she was actually in love with actress Stella Luchetta.
Not only that, but Corby had a nasty chain-smoking habit that was impossible to quit. Corby was married in 1934 and fell in love with Luchetta in 1953. When she passed away in 1999 the boundary-breaking couple was still together.
Patricia Neal Was Supposed To Be Olivia
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 Almost Got 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.
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.
A Father/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.
Mary Ellen’s Magazine Spread Was A Mistake
Judy Norton Taylor made one of the worst career decisions possible in 1985 when she decided to do a spread for Playboy. The actress was looking to shed her image, and to do it she decided she needed to shed her clothes.
Years later the actress admitted the see-all interview was a bad idea. After the magazine came out, most interviews she got were filled with questions about the spread and not her acting career.
Olivia Walton Drank… A Lot
As you already know, Michael Learned decided at 32-years-old she needed to get sober. Before making that life-changing decision she was a massive alcoholic. When she auditioned for the role, he alcoholism was so bad that she hid a bottle of bourbon in her pocket.
Whatever courage it gave her at the time worked and she convinced casting producers that she was perfect for the role. Still, her dangerous addiction ultimately nearly ended her career. Luckily she dealt with it.
Jon Walmsley Came From Overseas
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 Treated The Cast Poorly
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 Loved His Castmates
Before starting work on The Waltons, Ralph Waite had a dark addiction problem. Luckily, the cast became like family, and they helped him turn his life around. The love that he developed for those around him convinced him to begin fighting his demons.
The story about how he made the decision goes like this. He was sitting around the table with the children of the cast when he decided to join AA. His sobriety likely saved his career and his life.
Michael And Ralph Almost Dated
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,
Grandpa Liked Men
While you already know that Ellen Corby preferred women to men, you probably didn’t know that Grandpa had similar feelings for his own gender. Even though the actor was married and had children, he preferred the company of men to women.
While he was married, he was romantically involved with men. Later in his life, he met Harry Hay, a gay rights activist, and the two became close friends. Liking men wasn’t the only controversial thing about the actor though.
Grandpa Preferred Interesting Politics
While liking other men isn’t controversial today, it was very controversial while the actor who played Grandpa was working on The Waltons. Another side of his personality that would be controversial today was his political leanings. It turns out that Grandpa was a communist!
Zeb openly campaigned on behalf of striking labor workers and was a member of the communist party. When he found out the party didn’t approve of his sexual preferences, though, he left. His departure did not save him from being blacklisted in the ’50s.
Mary McDonough Tried Plastic Surgery
Mary McDonough also wanted to shed her image after the show ended, but wasn’t willing to go the same route as Judy Norton Taylor. Instead, she decided to get plastic surgery and had breast augmentation to enhance her curves.
Unfortunately, the implants backfired. She got sick from them and blamed them for her contacting Lupus. That’s a pretty scary situation if you ask us! Thankfully she was able to beat the sickness and continue her career.
Ralph Waite Got Into Politics
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, it proved to be fool’s gold. 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.
CBS Thought The Show Would Fail
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 Changed Over Time
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’ house needed to be remodeled for its new family. The new show ran for seven seasons and was eventually brought back for a mini-series on Netflix.
Earl Hammer’s Inspiration
Before creating the show, Earl Hammer Jr. needed to find his inspiration, and boy did he! Hammer Jr. grew up with seven siblings, which gave him plenty of interesting stories to tell. In fact, the show was partially autobiographical.
The character of John-Boy was Hammer Jr. For context with other shows, Seinfeld carried similar life inspirations. Larry David based the character of George after himself, while the title character was based on Jerry Seinfeld himself.
The Show’s 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
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!