The Story of The Waltons

Earl Hamner and The Waltons

The Waltons was a popular and critically-acclaimed 1970s CBS television series about a poor-but-contented family who lived in rural Virginia during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It was also one the best TV shows ever producedAlthough The Waltons was a fictional show, it was based on the life of Waltons creator, Earl Hamner, Jr., 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 and then moved to New York City, where he became a radio show writer.

 

Above:  The "Real Waltons."  This is Author Earl Hamner, Jr. (bottom) and his family.  His mother, Doris, is in blue, above him.  From top to bottom, his siblings:  (top row) Cliff; (second row) Bill, Paul, James, Marian, Nancy; (third row) Audrey.  Earl's father, Earl Hamner, Sr., passed away in 1969, two years before his son created "The Waltons."

In the late 1950s, Earl moved to southern California and began writing for television shows, including Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.  In his spare time, he 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. 

 

Hamner later wrote another book with a similar theme and setting called The Homecoming, which was based on an actual Hamner family event one year at Christmas during the Depression in Virginia.  The Homecoming was made into a two-hour 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 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.  The CBS executives couldn't have picked a worse time slot for the show, though, because The Waltons squared off against two 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.  But after CBS mounted a PR campaign to help save it, the show climbed steadily up the ratings chart, reaching #1 by the end of the first season and eventually knocking The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad off the air.  The only places in America where The Waltons wasn't popular, in fact, 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.  My favorite character was Grandpa, superbly played by Will Geer, who doled out sage advice with a 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, the first girl who I ever dated 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 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 after the fifth season.  Sadly, the show never seemed the same afterwards.

 

The Waltons limped along for a few more years and the final episode, number 219, aired in June of 1981.  Nevertheless, the show has since thrived in syndication 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 Cast of The Waltons

Introductions to The Waltons

Introduction:  First Season

Introduction:  Second Season

Introduction:  Third Season

My Favorite Episodes

"The Conflict" (#51 - 52)

List of Episodes

The Waltons Trivia

Earl Hamner's Acting Debut (#26)

The Story of Martha Corinne (#51 - 52)

That Beguiling Darlene Carr (#68)

The Waltons' Screen Doors

My Visits to Schuyler, Virginia (1985 and 2001)

The Rockfish Post Office

Links and Other Info on The Waltons

The current page is shown in bold.