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Walton's in the Media.
TV Guide
August 21, 1976

 


She Adds the Starch to `The Waltons'
Ellen Corby is a `Grandma' who's not ready for the rocking chair.

By Leslie Raddatz


The setting is familiar - the Walton family home on the quiet back lot of the Burbank (formerly Warner Brothers) Studios. The figure of Grandma Walton is familiar, too, garbed in her funny little black hat and shapeless black coat. But peeking out below that coat are lavender slacks and matching shoes that don't look like Grandma Walton at all. "I'm just going to be sitting in the truck for this scene, so my pantsuit won't show," says Ellen Corby, who plays Grandma in CBS's The Waltons. Then she adds, "This way I don't know who the hell I am."

That's what she say but you don't believe it. She knows exactly who she is, and the combination of the dowdy Grandma Walton costume and the smart pantsuit is probably as good a way as any of illustrating what makes up the persona of Ellen Corby. She is, at the same time, as old-fashioned as the character she plays and as modern as the Mercedes-Benz she drives-or as old and new as the Transcendental Meditation she has been practicing since before it became fashionable.

 

She is, not surprisingly, her most grandmotherly on the set of The Waltons. "I become that woman," she says. A friend says, "Ellen will never be a little, old lady, but she lives the part at the studio. She really believes in those lines." But it is more than a matter of reading lines or of giving a performance. The veteran crew working on The Waltons treats her with warm respect, as do the members of the cast. The children call her "Grandma" whether they are doing a scene or not, and they obey her when she tells them what to do. Richard Thomas, who plays John-Boy, stops by to talk to her of writing, for Ellen Corby has written screenplays for movies and a couple of stories for The Waltons and she is working on a novel.

 

Which, of course, is part of the off-screen Ellen Corby. In addition to writing, that Ellen Corby likes to travel. She has been around the world twice, to Europe six times and twice to India, where she sat at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When The Waltons is not in production, she gets into the camper parked, beside the Mercedes in the driveway of her 85-year-old West Hollywood home. With her cat Charlie Brown, she sets out for a weekend or a week by the ocean, in the mountains or in the desert. "More than any actress I know, she is close to the public," says her friend, screenwriter Virginia Kellogg. "She gets away from Hollywood."


She has been around Hollywood a long time since 1933 when, at 20, she went West to get into the movies. Her previous experience was limited to amateur contests in Philadelphia theaters, a high-school summer with a tent show that ventured as far afield as Virginia, and her first really professional engagement as a chorus girl in an Atlantic City nightclub. She was born Ellen Hansen in Racine, Wis., but moved to Philadelphia with her mother when her parents separated. "My father was a problem," she says, "but he told me one thing that has always guided me. He said, 'I can do anything any other stupid person can do'."

 

What Ellen did after getting to Hollywood was sit in front of the RKO Studios from 8:30 every morning until 6:30 every evening. "People had to see me," she says. Within two weeks, a producer who had been seeing her every day offered her a part in a low budget picture called "Twisted Rails." He made one condition. To get the job, she would have to double as script girl. Ellen did not act again for 11 years. Instead, she was script girl on hundreds of pictures, from Laurel and Hardy comedies to Hopalong Cassidy Westerns. For the latter, she even wrote some screenplays. On the personal side, early on, her mother moved out from Philadelphia, and Ellen was married to cameraman Francis Corby.

 

The year 1944 was traumatic for Ellen Corby. During one week in July, she filed for divorce after more than 10 years of marriage, put her Sam Fernando Valley home up for sale and quit her job as script girl to have another try at acting: "I'd always wanted lo be an actress, and I knew if I didn't start then I never would." She adds, 'There should be an AA-Actors Anonymous. It's incurable. I never lost the bug." She enrolled at the Actors Studio and late in 1944 joined a USO troupe for a tour of Alaska and the Aleutians in "The Male Animal." Back in Los Angeles by summer, she worked in a stage production of "Liliom," after first sending invitations to the opening to producers and directors she had worked with as a script girl. She got two movie jobs as a result. She says, "Actually I had no trouble getting started on the hot side of the camera." The parts, many of them bits, kept coming steadily until 1947, when she landed the role as Aunt Trina in "I Remember Mama." She subsequently got an Oscar nomination for it.

 

Harriet Parsons, the producer of "I Remember Mama," recalls the first time she saw Ellen Corby: "I was on the talent committee at RKO, and one day a young actor auditioned for us. Ellen did a scene with him as a favor. None of us paid any attention to him - we just watched her." Later, when the actress who had been cast as Aunt Trina dropped out, Ellen got the part.

Miss Parsons says, "She has never forgotten my birthday or Christmas in all the years since. Once she even sent me a gift to Paris. I've worked with a lot of actors and actresses. She is one of the few I can speak of with unqualified enthusiasm."

 

A part in the movie "Monsoon" took her to India for the first time in 1952, but it was the death of her mother 1963, that triggered her lasting interest in philosophy and Transcendental Meditation. She says, "My mother was most important person in my life. A great deal of me disappeared with I started to search for something to sustain me, something to cling to, something to enable me to return to my purpose in life, to be creative." In 1970, she returned to India for four months to study. Although she is deeply involved, she is not, according to Harriet Parsons. "obnoxiously religious - she is a well-rounded, intellectual person." Actress Anne Francis, with whom she attends philosophical seminars, says, "She is a lot of fun. She is mercurial - Miss Mischief." And there is a twinkle in Ellen Corby's eye as she says, "You'd be surprised at some of the things that come up in my meditations."

 

Before she went to India in 1970. she appeared in a CBS Playhouse production, "Appalachian Autumn," written by Earl Hamner, and after her return she was cast as Grandma in Hamner's "The Homecoming," from which The Waltons sprang. Hamner says, "We needed a starchy kind of person. People say The Waltons is saccharine. Ellen can be sweet, but she can be starchy, too. She brings a dimension to the character."

Perhaps the character has brought dimension to her life as well. It has brought her fame and recognition, including three Emmy Awards.

But there is more to it than that. Ellen Corby could be a lonely person. She has no children, no close relatives - even her former husband is now dead. But she does have The Waltons, and, as millions of TV viewers will testify, they are about as nice a family as anyone could want.



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