"The Waltons": Little Known Facts About the Iconic Show
In the 1970s, one CBS family became the representation of a wholesome family in America. After The Walton's debut on the television movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, CBS saw its success as a chance at a new series set in Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II. Now let's unpack everything you didn't know about the series!
#1 THE SHOW IS BASED ON EARL HAMNER'S REAL-LIFE
While the whole series follows the lives of the titular family, the main protagonist is John Walton Jr. or John-Boy. He is eldest of his 6 siblings at the age of 17 when the series starts. They all live with their parents John and Olivia and their grandparents Zebulon (Zeb) and Esther.
You may remember the opening and closing narrations are done by an older John-Boy who later works as a writer. The voice behind the narration is actually Earl Hamner Jr. who wrote the book Spencer's Mountain which was later adapted to film in 1963. The novel is inspired by Hamner's childhood growing up in Virginia being the eldest of eight siblings!
#2 THE CAST WAS UNDERAPPRECIATED AND UNDERPAID
In an exclusive interview with Closer Weekly, the surviving cast members shared some of their real feelings about the show. Despite the show's popularity throughout its decade-long run, many of the former child actors felt that they were not paid fairly and not appreciated.
Some of the former child actors recalled not receiving any recognition from the studio even after the "intense pressure" of always being on point and not making it difficult. Eric, who played Ben Walton shared, “It was disappointing that no one even called to say, ‘By the way, thank you.’ We were loved by the public, but we never felt the studio appreciated us.”
THREE MUFFINS FOR SEVEN CHILD ACTORS
Eric wasn’t the only one who felt that they weren’t acknowledged. Judy Norton, the eldest daughter Mary Ellen, recalled a time when Michael Learned, the matriarch of the Waltons, was appalled at the fact that the children never received any gifts or recognition during their time.
The producers had sent Michael a flower arrangement, but her TV mom instincts kicked in upon realizing that the kids didn't receive anything. “She went to the producers and said, ‘These kids have given you years of their lives and you can’t even get them something?’” said Judy. In response, the studio sent the kids a basket with three muffins in it.
#3 RALPH WAITE DIPPED INTO A POLITICAL CAREER
After the show's ending on June 4, 1981, the actors stepped out of their Walton roles or entered completely different careers. Ralph White who played John Walton Sr., the family patriarch, tried his hand at a political career in California!
He ran in 1990 for a seat in Congress and lost. In 1998, he ran for Congress after Sonny Bono's death and lost twice: once in the special election and then again in the November election. He passed away in Palm Desert, California at the age of 85 on February 13, 2014.
#4 CBS DIDN'T HAVE FAITH IN THE WALTONS
While CBS was carrying over the success from The Homecoming TV movie, the network didn't think the show would last as long as it did. The show's premiere followed the rural purge that came to popular American TV networks.
The network set the show's timeslot on Thursday at 8pm. This meant that the brand new series would have to compete against NBC's The Flip Wilson Show and ABC's The Mod Squad which were two very popular programs at the time. In response, CBS placed a full-page ad in a newspaper peppered with positive reviews, and evidently, it worked!
#5 THE REAL MOUNTAINS WERE ACTUALLY THE HILLS
The gorgeous home of The Waltons is fixed in the beautiful landscape of Walton's Mountains set in the fictional Jefferson County, Virginia. The real-life inspiration of the town is the Schuyler community in Nelson County, Virginia where Hamner Jr. was raised.
The mountain shots were actually shots of the Hollywood Hills which was south of Warner Bros. lot where the show was filmed. The front of the family home was also located in the studio. The original studio Walton home was burned down in November 1991 by a studio employee but was rebuilt in 1993 for the reunion special.
#6 THE TIMELINE IS ALL OVER THE PLACE
Although we know the show was set in World War II and the Great Depression, the writers became a little too creative throughout the show's 10-year run. Some of the anniversaries don't chronologically make sense and character's ages don't add up correctly.
For example, there is an episode when John-Boy is too young to join the army, but if viewers just calculated his age by the start of the show, he would have been 19 years old. In the show's finale, the whole community attends a party. The invitations are dated June 4, 1946 which meant the show spanned over 13 years.
#7 JOHN BOY IS IN THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
Well, not in real life. The actor, Richard Thomas, is one of the only child actors who continued his on-screen career after his Waltons role. Before his John-Boy role, he actually starred in an episode of The F.B.I. back in 1971.
He continued making appearances on popular TV movies and mini-series including It (1990) and The Wild West (1993). He's also made appearances on Rizzoli & Isles, Law & Order: SVU, and The Good Wife. In 2013, he started his role as FBI agent Frank Gaad in The Americans. The FX series ended in 2018.
#8 RALPH AND RICHARD HAVE PLAYED FATHER-AND-SON
Ralph was uncredited for his role in the film adaptation, but both Ralph and Richard had played the father-and-son dynamic in the 1969 coming-of-age drama Last Summer. Oddly enough, both Bruce Davison and Catherine Burns, who played Dan and Rhoda, respectively, made guest appearances on The Waltons.
#9 JOHN IS AN ORDAINED MINISTER
The Waltons father was an ordained minister in real life who married Jon Walmsley and his bride, Lisa Harrison. Jon played the second eldest son Jason and Lisa played his wife on the show, Toni. The ceremony was held in front of family and friends including the entire cast of the show.
#10 JOHN AND LIV WENT ON A DATE... WELL, ALMOST
Many of the actors felt a certain way about the studio, but it didn't affect the bond and friendship between the cast members. The chemistry between parents Olivia and John was so believable that the real-life actors took a chance with each other on a real date!
“We were both single,” Michael shared with Closer, “So I drove out to Malibu, but we just looked at each other and said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ So all of our lovemaking was on-screen!” They could've fooled all of us and the millions of viewers who watched the show!
#11 GRANDPA PROTESTED WITH GAY RIGHTS ICON HARRY HAY JR.
Harry Hay Jr. was the founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations, and is known for his work in the gay rights movement. Hay credits Will Geer as his political mentor since they both participated in many rallies and protests throughout the 1930s.
#12 ERIN IS NOW AN ADVOCATE FOR WOMEN'S HEALTH
Mary Elizabeth McDonough played Erin Walton, the second youngest daughter of the Waltons. After her role, she had a difficult time getting cast for her role and tries to switch up her appearance with plastic surgery. The surgery led to a leaking silicone implant that caused health complications. McDonough is now a women’s health advocate and life coach.
#13 THE WALTON'S HOUSE WAS USED FOR ONE OF THE GILMORE INNS
What do Gilmore Girls and The Waltons have in common? The house! The Dragonfly Inn, which is opened in season 4 by Lorelai Gilmore and Sookie St. James is the same set of The Waltons house. It's safe to assume that Warner Bros. used the house in the reunion special.
#14 ELIZABETH STEPPED AWAY FROM THE SCREEN AND INTO THE CLASSROOM
The youngest of the Walton siblings, Elizabeth, was played by Kami Cotler. While she did star in the reunion movies following the series' ending, she didn't do much acting beyond her appearances. She stepped away from the screen and became a teacher in California. She now serves as the founding Principal of Los Angeles Environmental Charter School.
#15 HENRY FONDA COULD HAVE BEEN JOHN WALTON
With Henry Fonda’s fatherly role in Spencer’s Mountain, it made sense that the show starters were turning to him for the patriarch role. According to the New York Times, when executives showed him the pilot script, Fonda said, “What do you want me for? The family is the star. You don’t need me.”
For nine seasons, The Waltons welcomed us to their fictional home among the Blue Ridge Mountains, which we now know was just Hollywood Hills. It still doesn't take away the magic of John-Boy and his many family stories. Did we miss any behind-the-scenes facts about this beloved show? Let us know in the comments below!