My Waltons Home Page >
The Story of The Waltons
The Story of
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 Zone. In 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
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
Above: The Waltons (left to right):
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
The current page is shown in