If you’re near Los Angeles during the weekend of August 7-9 and you’re a fan of the TV series The Waltons, which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1981 (followed by six TV movies), you’ll want to attend A Waltons Weekend at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. Actor Will Geer played Grandpa Zebulon Walton in the popular series, created by Earl Hamner, Jr., and based on his own childhood in Virginia. Hamner, now 92, will receive the first Will Geer Humanitarian Award at the event which will feature appearances by many cast members from the show.
I had a chance to talk with Geer’s daughter, accomplished actress and director Ellen Geer (who appeared in two episodes of The Waltons and is now the artistic director of the Theatricum Botanicum that her parents started after they were blacklisted in the 1950s). “The Waltons meant so much to our family,” Geer told me. “It broke ground on so many issues. After Ellen Corby (who played Grandma Esther Walton) had a stroke, Pop urged her to come back on the show even though she had a hard time speaking. Ellen was so sweet. Even after her stroke, whenever we’d visit the set, she’d always put a $10 bill in our hand when we saw her!” Greer is delighted to present Earl Hamner with the award named after her father. “We’re talking about the essence of what Pop was to me and so many others — a real humanitarian. That’s what I felt about my old man!”
I’ve been to Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum many times and it is a magical place. Many members of the Geer family take an active role in its running. “It was difficult for us after the blacklist,” Geer said, “even for us kids. When you were a ‘red diaper baby’ back then, some people marked you like they marked your parents. But that didn’t exist in the theater. The theater was our community that accepted us no matter what. I think that’s why most of us in the family went at it!” Geer understands the lasting appeal of The Waltons. “It touched at all of the subjects that are the root of our problems now. Whenever I’m feeling lonely or missing my dad, I can turn it on — I love showing it to my grandchildren.”
The Waltons appeared on the scene when I was a kid just as my parents were slogging through a very ugly divorce. No matter how bad it got at home, I knew I’d have at least one hour-long respite on Thursday nights and I looked forward to it all week. No one meant more to me during that troubled period than Waltons’ matriarch Olivia, played by actress Michael Learned. I was thrilled to have a chance to talk to the four-time Emmy winner about the upcoming event and to finally thank her for writing me a letter many years ago.
Danny Miller: I have waited over four decades to thank you for the sweet letter you took the time to write me when I was a kid in Chicago and going through a very difficult period during my parents’ divorce. That letter became like a talisman for me, proof that things would somehow work out and that my life would get better. “Hang on to your spark,” you said. I lived on that comment for years!
Michael Learned: Oh, Danny, you’re making me tear up — that makes my day! Divorce is hard on everybody. I know because I’ve been through it with my own kids.
I couldn’t wait for Thursday nights to imagine that I was part of the Walton family and feel that closeness and warmth no matter what was going on in my house.
I think we all had those fantasies. Honestly, I remember this one moment when I was sitting on the porch set with Ellen Corby shelling peas and thinking, “God, I wish my life was like this!” (Laughs.)
Given my own situation, I responded more to your character than anyone on the show. I remember being devastated when you left the series with the excuse that Olivia had tuberculosis and had to move to Arizona to recover. Did you ever regret the decision to leave?
No, I didn’t regret it. After the kids were more grown, Earl and the writers were trying, but there just wasn’t much they could find for Olivia to do. I think it’s amazing that they came up with some of the storylines they did for her. Earl was so sweet and I gave him some ideas that made it into the show. I so appreciated that but by that time, I just felt like there wasn’t a lot for me to do.
Still, as much as you spent a lot of time pouring coffee and saying goodnight, I think the show was pretty progressive for its day. I’m thinking, for example, of that episode where Olivia got fed up and went on strike.
That was my idea! I did that with my own kids. I sat down one day and I said, “I am on strike. I’m not going to clean up your rooms, I’m not going to do anything until there are some changes around here.” And I remember one of my sons was terrified and said, “Can we say good morning?” But I got my point across. I suggested that to Earl and he incorporated it.
That’s so great that he was open to listening to ideas from the cast.
He really was.
I know you were busy with other projects but was there a part of you that missed being on the show after you left?
Oh, I missed everybody like crazy! I used to have this recurring dream that they were taking the family photograph — every year they’d take a new group photo of us and we’d always complain and groan about it but in my dream they’d be taking a photograph and they wouldn’t let me be in it!
And I would wake up crying. Seriously! I really missed everybody. Just a few minutes ago I was looking at a photograph I have of my last day on the set. I was weeping uncontrollably and everyone had their arms around me. To this day we are very much an extended family.
The cast of The Waltons in a 2013 Entertainment Weekly article (from l-r): Ralph Waite (John), Michael Learned (Olivia), Mary McDonough (Erin), David W. Harper (Jim-Bob), Eric Scott (Ben), Earl Hamner, Jr., Kami Cotler (Elizabeth), Richard Thomas (John-Boy), Jon Walmsley (Jason), and Judy Norton (Mary Ellen)
It’s pretty rare for a group of actors to remain that close after a show ends. I saw what some of the actors who played the kids wrote about Ralph Waite when he died last year — it was very moving. I have that Waltons Christmas CD you all made several years ago on my iPod and your duet with Ralph Waite (John Walton) makes me cry every time I hear it! You and Ralph always had such a great chemistry.
We were very lucky, we really loved each other. I think you can’t fake that kind of thing. I mean, maybe you can if you’re very good actors but it’s hard because you’re spending 14 hours a day with each other and if you’re not getting along, it’s really rough.
I can’t think of any other cast that has stuck together for so many years. I’ve talked to some of the kids and I know they think of you as family.
Someone asked me the other day if I had any pictures of the Walton kids at my own wedding. I wasn’t sure but I looked in my photo album and, of course, there they were! During the ceremony when they said, “Who gives this woman to this man?” my kids and the Walton kids all stood up and said, “We do!”
So sweet! I was thrilled that you came back as Olivia for the six TV movies in the 80s and 90s but the way they played with the timeline on those shows made me nuts!
Yeah, that used to drive my husband crazy, too! I remember he watched our Easter movie that took place in 1969 and said, “There was no moon landing over Easter — it was at the end of July!” Historical accuracy was definitely not the main focus of those films!
Not to mention the fact that the characters’ ages were all over the map. We all knew that John and Olivia celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in 1935 but there you were celebrating your 40th anniversary in the 1960s!
(Laughs.) I know. Things like that used to drive us crazy, they really did, but there was nothing we could do about it.
I think today they’d know that obsessive fans are also continuity experts and they’d never monkey around with the timeline like that.
We had a little bit of power when we were doing the series but when the movies came along we had none. If someone tried to protest something in the script, they’d probably just write them out of the story! But when you’re a regular on a series, you can be a pain in the ass – and we were! – and people would listen to you. Again, I have to say that Earl was always very generous and gracious in trying to make everyone feel that they were important and that their character was important but in those movies there was a lot of stuff that was allowed to get by that really bothered us.
Does it ever bother you to hear some people say how schmaltzy the show was?
Yes! I’m tired of hearing people say everybody was too good and too nice because they weren’t! Grandma was feisty and judgmental, and so was Olivia! They were both very rigid about their own religion. There was segregation on the show. As much as they were nice to the little African American boy who they found hiding in their barn, I forgot that character’s name—
You mean Josh, played by Todd Bridges, in “The Stray!”
Yes! But they don’t keep him, they give him to Verdie Grant (Lynn Hamilton). The show also recognized the realities of the time.
Did you ever watch the show after you left?
I couldn’t — there were too many memories. But you know, I was recently in Austin doing a play and I happened to catch an episode of the show on the Hallmark Channel with the second John-Boy. Remember that they replaced Richard Thomas after he left the show? I had never really seen that young man (Robert Wightman). I think maybe I had done one of two shows with him before I left and it was very awkward. I felt sorry for him on the set and, to be honest, I didn’t feel it was right to have a different John-Boy with a different face and voice. But you know, when I saw that episode I thought it was very good and that he did a nice job!
Thank God they didn’t recast your character or allow anyone else to be a love interest for John. I would have completely revolted!
Yeah, John Walton goes out and gets a mail-order bride. (Laughs.)
Of course the series was spun off from Earl’s great 1971 TV movie The Homecoming which featured all the same Walton kids but Patricia Neal as Olivia. Was it intimidating for you at first to be replacing the great Patricia Neal?
Yes, it was, but I was just so damn grateful, I can’t tell you. I had three kids to support, I was going through a divorce, I wasn’t doing well emotionally, I was drinking way too much — all the things you do when you’re in extreme psychological distress! I remember the first day on the set, I said to the crew, “I haven’t done television in a very long time — please help me out!” and they bent over backwards, they were so kind. And the kids were just wonderful. It must have been harder for them, they’d had Patricia as their mom and now they had to adjust to me, but they were great. It was a very happy set, full of love.
How did you get the part?
I was living in San Francisco. My husband and were separating, and my agent kept calling me up to tell me there was this part of a farm woman he wanted me to come down to L.A. for. I said to him, “A farm woman? That’s just not who I am. I just finished playing Cleopatra, for goodness sakes!” But he kept after me and I eventually came down. I remember I was staying in this little motel for 12 bucks a night, I had no money, and a few times I’d come back and find the manager, Mary, tied up in the office! It was a pretty rough neighborhood.
My agent was still pushing me to go in for that part and I said, “I don’t have red hair, I’m not in my 40s, blah blah blah,” but I went in. I was pretty out of it emotionally in those days and all I remember about that first meeting was a bunch of men sitting around a long table. They asked me if I would do a screen test and I said yes. I vaguely remember getting into this old dress and somebody slapping a hat on my head because my hair was very short and blonde. They pushed me out onto a soundstage and there were Ralph and Richard, thank goodness! So we did our little scene and I just crawled away thinking I was awful. And then four days later I got a call from my agent saying, “You are the mother of America!” I almost had a heart attack, I couldn’t believe it! It was like God had put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Here.” It was a gift.
No! First of all, I can’t imagine that it’s been 43 years since we did the show, it seems like yesterday. And secondly, I don’t think Ralph and I ever thought the show would last more than seven or eight episodes, we just didn’t think it would have that kind of appeal. (Laughs.) We were shocked and very grateful.
I think it hit a nerve at the perfect time. It certainly helped give me the strength to deal with the problems I was facing at the time.
It means so much to me to hear you say that. One person came up to me recently and said, “Thursday night was the only night that I felt safe as a child.”
That’s exactly how I felt.
What an honor to be a part of something like that, it really brings tears to my eyes.
I think you brought something to the character of Olivia that allowed me and so many others to feel the love you had for your children as if it were directed at us. And again, when I think of you sitting there in your dressing room and taking the time to write a letter to me when I was just a young TV-obsessed kid who needed a little help — I really can’t thank you enough!
Danny, I’m so grateful to you for telling me that. It touches me very very deeply.
Click here to purchase tickets for “A Waltons Weekend” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. On Friday, August 7th, there will be a screening of a new documentary called Earl Hamner, Storyteller. There will be a Walton-themed dinner, a silent auction, and special guest appearances. For the brave souls, they will even be pouring out a bit of “The Recipe,” courtesy of the Baldwin Sisters. On Saturday, August 8th, there will be a Waltons Family Gathering that will include a panel discussion and Q&A hosted by Ellen Geer featuring Michael Learned and many of the other cast members.