In the fall of 1972 a wonderfully endearing show about a family from the 1930s debuted. “The Waltons” quickly became a fan favorite, managing to stay on the air until 1981. The show focused on a Depression-era family living in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The series is seen from the view of eldest son John-Boy, whose character eventually goes off to World War II and then returns home to become a novelist.
“The Waltons” was so popular that after it was cancelled by CBS in 1981, it was picked up by NBC for three TV movie sequels in 1982, and then it returned for three more reunions in the 1990s on CBS. The 1970s might been full of free love and Vietnam protests, but “The Waltons” dominated a large chunk of pop culture thanks to its wholesome family values and engaging episodes. In celebration of the show we take a look at the show’s characters, where the people who played them are today, and then show off some fun facts about the series. Read until the end for some facts that will absolutely blow your mind.
Michael Learned – Then
Olivia, best known to Walton fans as Liv or Mama is the soft-spoken wife of John Walton. She was portrayed as an incredibly patient and loving wife who directly complimented John Walton’s tough-as-nails persona. She is also the mother to seven living 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
After winning a handful of Emmy’s for her role on the show, Learned started to travel with Tom Bosley of “Happy Days” fame in the stage version of “On Golden Pond.” These days she says her husband, three sons and five grandchildren keep her incredibly busy. Even with her tight schedule she has found time to appear in many TV shows, most recently as Marni Woodworth in the TV movie Life Interrupted. She has also regularly appeared on the soap operate “The Young and the Restless.” She also played Mrs. Wilk on “Scrubs,” which really made our day.
Ralph Waite – Then
John Walton Sr. was the tough-skinned man of the house. He was highly opinionated but also a loving father to his seven children. He ran a small family sawmill on his property on Walton’s Mountain. He was distrusting of religion, but by no means an atheist. This hard-working World War I veteran also worked hard to make sure all of his children would eventually go to college and make something of themselves.
Ralph Waite – Now
Ralph Waite passed away in February 2014. Before his death he appeared in various films and TV shows. His most recent regular role was as Jackson Gibbs on the massively popular “NCIS.” He also handled the regular role of Hank Booth on Bones and appeared in 98 episodes of “Days of our Lives.” Waite also ran for Congress in the 1990s but wasn’t elected for office. After his loss he said he “learned his lesson” and would not run again.
Richard Thomas – Then
John Walton Jr., better known throughout the series as “John-Boy,” was born in 1916. He’s the oldest of the children and the narrator of the show. This 17-year-old young man was a serious thinker and an avid reader who wanted nothing more than to become a writer. He frequently wrote in his journal to document the everyday trials and tribulations of his family. Much like his father he could be tough-skinned. After becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college, he moved to New York to fulfill his dreams of becoming an author. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the military and became a writer for Stars and Stripes.
Richard Thomas – Now
Thomas stayed incredibly busy following the final episode of “The Waltons.” He appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies, typically in bit or guest starring roles. Most recently he has starred as Frank Gaad for three seasons in the incredibly well-produced show “The Americans.” You may not have known that Thomas directed five episodes of “The Waltons” and he has produced four TV movies.
Jon Walmsley – Then
Jason Walton was born in 1918. He had a good relationship with his siblings but was especially close to older brother John-Boy, despite having a completely different personality and very different interests. His role started out with him as a very introverted teen, but quickly became more social as he started playing harmonic, guitar, and piano. By season four he was playing honky tonk piano at a local taverns. By season seven he had joined the Army, met a Jewish girl named Toni Hazelton, and had several children.
Jon Walmsley – Now
Walmsley’s love of music on the show very much mirrored his real life. He is a performing guitarist who plays with The Ravers — a band that performs British rock music from the 1960s. He’s no slouch on the music scene, having worked with Richard Marx, Brian Setzer, David Pack, David Koz, The Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald, Gregg Allman, Merle Haggard, and many others. He mostly appeared in “The Waltons” specials in the 1980s and 1990s and focused on his music instead of acting.
Judy Norton – Then
Mary Ellen is the oldest daughter of Liv and John. She was born in April 1920 and was 13 years old in season one. For the first several seasons she was a whiny, sometimes rebellious teenager. She portrayed a tomboy with a love for playing baseball. She also spent her time engaged in a rivalry with rich-girl Martha-Rose Coverdale for the affections of the awkward G.W. Haines. As the series progressed the show’s writers transformed Mary Ellen into a mature and wise young lady who worked toward her nursing degree and then became a doctor.
Judy Norton – Now
Following the end of “The Waltons” Norton turned to her other love — the stage. She directed more than 40 different shows for two theater companies in Canada. Following “The Waltons” she appeared in various one-off roles in a ton of TV shows including “Stargate SG-1,” “Disorganized Zone,” and “Bluff.” She also rediscovered her love of music and recorded a demo.
Eric Scott – Then
Ben was the fourth-born child in the Walton-clan and he was known for getting in trouble at just the wrong times. His rebellious spirit made him a great person for entrepreneurship, but he tended to get involved in get-rich-quick schemes and his dad or big brother were constantly bailing him out. As he grew older he helped his dad run the sawmill but continued to make bad business decisions. He eventually eloped with Cindy Brunson and they had two children, daughter Virginia (Ginny) and son Charles Benjamin (Charlie). At one point, Ben joined the Seabees and was taken prisoner by the Japanese. His journey on “The Waltons” is by far one of the craziest.
Eric Scott – Now
Eric Scott left acting behind not long after “The Waltons.” He instead decided to to pursue a career in business. He worked his way up the ranks and eventually became the vice president of a messenger service in Los Angeles. He is also the proud dad of two daughters and a son.
Mary Beth McDonough – Then
Erin was the the fifth-born and second daughter of Olivia Walton and John Walton Sr. She looked up to her older sister Mary Ellen, although they often engaged in sibling fights. She was the “pretty one” in the family but definitely not the scholar. She fell in love quite a few times through her teen years. She worked her way up from a part-time employee in college to the executive secretary for a loudmouth businessman, before taking over as a plant’s executive manager. She continued to have horrible relationships that either ended with failed romance or boys who died. She eventually met Paul Northridge and they married and had three children: Susan, Amanda, and Peter. In the reunion shows we learned that her husband cheated on her, leading to a divorce. Always one to move forward with her life, she eventually earned her teaching certificate and became a school principal.
Mary Beth McDonough – Now
Mary McDonough took on a recurring role as Mrs. Wilhoite in the hilarious but short-lived “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” Following “The Waltons,” she appeared on such popular shows as “ER,” “Will and Grace,” and “Boston Legal.” She has even taken off her acting hat to serve as a special correspondent for celebrity reporting platform “Entertainment Tonight.”
Kami Cotler – Then
Cotler played the role of Elizabeth Walton, the youngest child of John and Olivia Walton. She was just 6 years old when the show debuted. As the youngest child she was a loud and free-spirited child. As she grew older she babysat many of her nieces and nephews. Eventually she headed off to travel around Europe and then joined the Peace Corps. In the final episode she got engaged to her boyfriend Drew.
Kami Cotler – She’s A Teacher Now…And An Environmentalist!
Kami Cotler loved acting as a child but after the show ended she wanted to do something else with her life. She became a teacher and then in a funny twist of fate, she found a teaching job in Nelson County, Virginia — the same area where show creator Earl Hamner grew up and based the series around. She’s the mother of two and now lives in the Los Angeles area, where she runs a charter elementary school.
You won’t believe why John Walton disappeared from the show…find out next!
Ralph Waite Was Fired Because The Network Was Cheap
Halfway through the ninth season the character of John Walton suddenly disappeared. The show wasn’t supposed to have a ninth season but it continued with a smaller budget. As he got older it was more expensive to keep him employed. Producers needed to make cuts so they just removed the highest paid actor — because that’s obviously smart for story continuation.
Ellen Corby Returned After A Stroke Because It Helped Her Recover
One of the saddest parts of “The Waltons” was that Grandma Esther left the show after actress Ellen Corby suffered a stroke. She believed her acting skills were going to decrease because of her stroke. However, she soon realized that acting was helping with the healing process and she asked to be returned to the show. Sadly, many fans thought the show’s producers were forcing her back into the role — despite her health. Her cast members eventually spoke out in support of her return, telling fans that it was good for her health.
Ellen Corby Was A Chain-Smoking Lesbian
Ellen Corby passed away in 1999 and the biggest mourner at her funeral was Stella Luchetta. She was often referred to as a “friend” or “caretaker” for Corby. However, it was a well-known fact in Hollywood that they were indeed a romantic couple for nearly forty-five years. Before Ellen died, her last words to Stella were a simple, “Love you.” While she had married director Francis Corby in 1934, that was largely seen as a move to protect her reputation since fans and studio executives would never embrace a lesbian in the 1930s. After meeting Stella in 1953 they remained together until her death. That’s right folks, The Waltons’ God-fearing Grandma was a chain-smoking lesbian IRL. Take that, Waltons!
Patricia Neal Was Originally Cast
Patricia Neal appeared as Olivia Walton in the pilot for “The Waltons.” She wasn’t able to stay on the show because of health problems from her past. After she made an exit from the series, the role was handed over to Michael Learned. Her unfortunate removal ended up being good for the show.
Henry Fonda Talked Himself Out Of A Role
A former CBS executive thought Henry Fonda would be the perfect person to play the family patriarch. Fonda entertained the notion by watching the show’s two-hour pilot movie. Executive producer Lee Rich, explained the actor’s reaction to the pilot. “What do you want me for? The kid is the star! The whole family is the star! You don’t need me,” he allegedly said.
A Case Of Mistaken Identity
At the time, sitcoms used a family’s last name to tell viewers what they were about to watch. “The Waltons” was not a sitcom but a lot of early viewers were confused because of how the show was named. Despite that fact, millions of viewers stuck around and the show became an immediate hit.
The Father And Son Connection
Ralph Waite and Richard Thomas had some serious father and son chemistry together. The two worked side-by-side on Last Summer (1969) before coming together three years later as a father-son pair on “The Waltons.” Sometimes you just have to stick with what works and hope audiences agree with that decision.
Olivia Walton Was A Massive Alcoholic
Ma Walton would often rant and rave about the evils of alcohol. In real life, Michael Learned was a huge alcoholic. In fact, she showed up at her audition with a bottle of bourbon tucked neatly away in her pocket. Despite her traveling bottle of alcohol, she managed to convince the show’s casting crew that she would be perfect for the role.
Jon Walmsley Was Born In England
Jon was born in Blackburn, a town located in Lancashire, England. With that background, he didn’t have to work hard on perfecting an American accent — his parented emigrated to the USA when he was just an infant and he is an American citizen who developed the Yankee accent on his own.
The Studio Took Advantage Of The Cast
Michael Learned once told the story about just how cheap the studio could be with the cast. “The running joke was that Lorimar was so cheap that their idea of a party was one can of beer and 13 straws!” When she received a large arrangement of flowers from the show’s producers she was enraged that the children on the show didn’t receive anything at the same time.
Ralph Waite Fell In Love With The Cast
Ralph was already a serious stage actor at the time of casting. It was no secret that he didn’t harbor any type of great love for kids when the series debuted. However, the children on the show that made him turn his life around. “He credited the show for being the reason he got sober,” recalls Judy. While sitting at the dinner table with the children he decided to enter AA and lead a sober life.
Michael And Ralph Attempted To Date… It Was Too Awkward
Michael and Ralph had amazing chemistry on the small screen as Olivia and John. They thought that chemistry might carry over to real life. “We were both single,” Michael says. “So I drove out to Malibu, but we just looked at each other and said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’” Apparently they entered the TV equivalent of the friend zone.
Grandpa Was Gay
Will Greer, the actor who portrayed Zeb “Grandpa” Walton was married with children but also involved in several relationships with men. He became involved with a man named Harry Hay in the 1930s, and together they were outspoken political activists. Hay would go on to become a major figure in the gay rights movement in the years that followed.
AND… He Was A Communist
Grandpa Walton’s leading man was also a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1934, and often campaigned on behalf of striking workers. When he found out that the Communist party was homophobic, he agreed to marry a woman. Geer was blacklisted in the 1950s after he outright refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Mary Ellen’s Playboy Spread Ended Up Ruining Her Career
Actress Judy Norton had a very difficult time breaking away from her role as Mary Ellen. In 1985, she appeared in a spread for Playboy magazine. She admitted years later that the spread was a bad idea, since most interviews after that point were focused on that decision and not her acting chops.
Mary McDonough Tried Breast Augmentation But It Made Her Sick
Actress Mary McDonough also had a hard time making the transition from a wholesome TV actress to more mainstream roles. She attempted implants but later said she believed that decision made her sick. She suffered from health complications from her implants, which made have led to her contracting the autoimmune ailment Lupus. She went on to write the book Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton.
Ralph Waite Attempted To Become A Politician After The Show Ended
Ralph Waite really wanted to get into politics but he largely failed to use his celebrity to win over the hearts and minds of voters. He ran as a Democrat for Congress three times in California, but lost all of his contests. On February, 2014, the famous actor passed away at Palm Desert. He was 85 years old at the time of his death.
The Show’s Success Was A Huge Surprise To CBS
Executives at CBS believed “The Waltons” was going to be a huge failure. They even set it up for a tremendous fall, placing it up against “The Flip Wilson Show” on NBC and “The Mod Squad” on ABC. It beat both of those shows in the ratings and ran for ten years, to much critical and audience acclaim.
The Walton’s House Would Eventually Become The Gilmore Inn
The house lived in by the family was used for various shows and movies in the years following the end of the TV series. It was most notably the Dragonfly Inn on the popular TV series “The Gilmore Girls.” The home was renovated for the show but preserved much of its rich TV history in the process.
Show Creator Earl Hamner Jr. Drew Familiar Inspiration For The Show
Series creator Earl Hamner Jr. had seven siblings and he drew inspiration for the show from his family. He admitted that he was essentially John Boy in real life. His novel The Homecoming was first dramatized as the 1963 movie, “Spencer’s Mountain.” His real family home in Schuyler, Virginia remains open as a Walton’s Museum.
The Show’s Timeline Was Constantly Messed Up
With the show lasting for 10 years, the show’s creators decided to take some very liberal approaches with the cast members’ ages. They also changed up anniversaries and when events occurred. On perfect example was John Boy’s inability to enroll in the Army, even though he would have been 19 at the time of his request. Oops.
The Original John-Boy Made Regular Appearances As A Different Character
Actor Richard Thomas was originally contracted to play John-Boy for five seasons. Producers decided to replace him with Robert Wightman. After he was replaced, he continued to make character appearances. He even went on to appear in the film sequels for the show.
The Youngest Walton Quit Acting And Found A New Career
Kami Cotler, who played youngest Walton Elizabeth, got out of the acting business when the show drew to a close. She did appear in the reunion movies but decided to stick with teaching outside of her famous role. She would go on to become the founding principal of the Environmental Charter Middle School in Gardena, California.
John Married Jason
Ralph Waite was an ordained minister in real life and he performed the marriage ceremony for Jon Walmsley, who played second oldest son Jason. Walmsley and his bride, Lisa Harrison, were wed in front of the entire cast. “I didn’t know whether I was the father, the minister or a friend,” Waite once proclaimed. This act goes to show exactly how close the cast had become during 10 years of filming.
“The Waltons” was an endearingly complex show that displayed the type of long-term maturity in its characters that we don’t often see in scripted TV series these days. The show features very different characters who all figured out how to live side-by-side. Perhaps we can still learn something from “The Waltons” in modern times.