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The Story of The Waltons



Earl Hamner and The Waltons

The Waltons, the popular and critically-acclaimed 1970s CBS series about a rural family in Virginia, was undoubtedly one the best television shows ever produced Although The Waltons was a fictional show, it was based on the life of author Earl Hamner, who grew up during the Great Depression in Schuyler (pronounced "Sky-ler"), Virginia, a small company town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 


After graduating from the University of Richmond (the fictional Boatwright University portrayed in The Waltons), Hamner served in World War II, then moved to New York City, where he became a radio show writer.  In the late 1950s, he moved to southern California and began writing for television shows, including Rod Serling's The Twilight ZoneIn his spare time, Earl wrote several books about his upbringing in rural Virginia during the Great Depression, including a novel called Spencer's Mountain which, in 1963, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara as Clay and Olivia Spencer, and James MacArthur as their son, Clay-Boy, the model for Earl Hamner himself.



Above:  Waltons creator, Earl Hamner, Jr. 


Hamner later wrote another book with a similar theme and setting called The Homecoming, which was based on an actual family event one year at Christmas during the Depression.  The Homecoming was made into a CBS TV movie in 1971, but since the name "The Spencers" was copyrighted, Earl Hamner decided to call the family "The Waltons."  The show starred Patricia Neal and Andrew Duggan as the parents, John and Olivia Walton, Richard Thomas as their new-and-improved son, John-Boy, Ellen Corbin as Grandma, and Edger Bergen (father of Candace Bergen and Charlie McCarthy's former sidekick) as Grandpa. 


The Homecoming aired on December 19, 1971, and was a huge ratings success, so CBS decided to turn it into a TV series called The Waltons, which debuted on September 14, 1972.  The cast was similar, except the joyful actor Will Geer became the new Grandpa, and the younger and healthier Ralph Waite and Michael Learned were cast as the parents (yes, Michael was a woman, something I never figured out).  The CBS executives couldn't have picked a worse time slot for the show, though, because The Waltons squared off against two extremely popular shows: The Mod Squad on ABC and the #1 rated program in the country, The Flip Wilson Show over on NBC. 


From The Bottom to The Top

Despite much acclaim, The Waltons wallowed near the bottom of the TV ratings during its first few months.  It seemed that the show, stressing homespun themes, was doomed, especially being stacked up against its glitzier competition.  In fact, after a few weeks, no one in the Waltons cast expected to stick around much longer.  To help rescue the show, CBS mounted a PR campaign, which was how I first heard about it.  I was an avid Flip Wilson fan back then, but that fall, I saw an ad in Life Magazine entitled "Help Save The Waltons," describing how this family-oriented show on CBS was on the verge of being cancelled because of low ratings. 



Above:  The Waltons (left to right):

Front:  Elizabeth, John, Olivia, John-Boy, and Mary Ellen.  Rear:  Jason, Grandma, Ben, Jim Bob.  Grandpa and Erin aren't shown.


Well, it worked because, through the ads and word-of-mouth, not only did I start watching it every Thursday night at 8 p.m., but so did millions of other Americans.  The show received a lot of critical acclaim, as well, with both Richard Thomas (John-Boy) and Michael Learned (Olivia) winning Best Actor Emmys that first year, along with Ellen Corby, who played the crusty Grandma, the first of 19 Emmys the show would eventually win.  The show's family-oriented message was a welcome relief during that time of political upheaval, with the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal dominating the news. 


The show climbed steadily up the ratings chart, reaching #1 by the end of the first season, eventually knocking The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad off the air.  In fact, the only places in America where The Waltons wasn't popular were in New York City and Los Angeles, because people there apparently couldn't relate to the show's rural, family-based themes.  Somehow that doesn't surprise me and, to some extent, explains why I don't live in New York City or Los Angeles.


Although the writing was sometimes unsteady, The Waltons was blessed with an abundance of good actors and good acting.  Probably my favorite character was Grandpa, superbly played by Will Geer, who doled out sage advice with a constant twinkle in his eye.  I must admit, though, that I had a crush on Mary Ellen, who was a little older than myself (now that I think about it, my first girlfriend looked a lot like Mary Ellen -- creepy, huh?)  And if you've read through my website, you could probably guess that the character I most resembled when I was younger was the soft-spoken Jim Bob.





The Series Winds Down

The first few years of the The Waltons, when Ellen Corby and Will Geer (a.k.a., "You old fool") were both alive, were definitely the best.  After about four years, things started to fall apart and the show began going downhill:  Mary Ellen got married, actress Ellen Corby had a stroke, and John-Boy headed off to New York City.  For me, though, the biggest blow came when actor Will Geer died in 1978, and the show never seemed the same afterwards.


The Waltons limped along for a few more years, then became really pathetic towards the end, especially with Livvy shuffled off to a sanitarium and a reconstituted John-Boy working in New York (does anyone remember the second John-Boy?)  The final episode, number 219, aired in June of 1981, although The Waltons probably should've said goodnight to America a few years earlier.  Nevertheless, the show has since thrived in syndication, including its current airing on the Hallmark Channel, while endearing a whole new generation of viewers.



Table of Contents:

The Waltons

My Home Page on The Waltons

The Story of The Waltons

The Waltons Cast

The Waltons Episode List

The Waltons Introductions

Introduction: First Season

Introduction: Second Season

Introduction: Third Season

My Visits to Schuyler, VA (1985 & 2001)

My Favorite Waltons Episodes

"The Conflict" (#51-52)

Waltons Trivia

Earl Hamner's Acting Debut (#26)

The Story of Martha Corinne (#51-52)

That Beguiling Darlene Carr (#68)

The Waltons' Screen Doors

The Rockfish Post Office

The Rockfish Post Office Dogs

Waltons Links and Other Info

The current page is shown in bold.