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Walton's in the Media.
TV Guide
June 25, 1977


The way the Walton kids were-and are. In both pictures, they are (back row, from left): Judy Norton Taylor, Kami Cotler, Richard Thomas, Eric Scott, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, In the front row (from left) are John Walmsley and David S. Harper.

 


Growing Pains on Walton's Mountain
After five years on the air, the adults are getting restless and the kids are, well not kids anymore

By Bill O'Hallaren


One recent day Earl Hamner Jr., the creator and executive producer of The Waltons, took a moment to glance at the Hollywood trade papers. A Variety headline proclaimed: "Richard Thomas Ankles Waltons."

 

That was news, and then some, to Hamner, who said later, "You can imagine how I felt. Richard is not only my star and my friend, but he is playing me." The rest of the world may think of The Waltons on CBS as fiction, but for Hamner it is the re-creation of the lives of his own family during Depression days in the Virginia mountains; and John-Boy, the young writer, is Earl Hamner, the young writer.

 

"I went down to the set right away. Richard told me, 'I've decided it's time for John-Boy to move on'." Thomas explained that he had other commitments: movies, a play and, at 26, he felt that the time had come to take on bigger challenges. Once he made his decision he announced it publicly, before anyone could change his mind.

 

Actually, Thomas's defection couldn't be totally unexpected, because In the final episode this season John-Boy's novel was accepted for publication, find next year's plans call for him to go to New York - where, presumably, no one will ever call him John-Boy again.

 

Still, it was another in a series of jolts that has suddenly shaken the five year-old series so rudely that some wonder about its long-term survival. these include some unexpectedly low ratings, grumblings from two of the adult stars, Ellen Corby's illness and, perhaps most serious of all, the realization that all those cute little redheaded Walton children devised by Hamner are growing up - and the actors playing them are shooting up even faster.

 

In mid-November, Corby, the peppery Grandma, suffered a stroke and was out for the rest of the season. She is currently undergoing intensive speech therapy at the Motion Picture County home. Hamner, a constant visitor, reports she is "improving dramatically. She's such a strong, determined lady. She'll be back the minute she's able, even in a wheelchair." The producers are hopeful she'll be able to appear on the show next season - and, if so, she will be portrayed as exactly what she is: a stroke victim fighting hard to recover her speech.

 

Michael Learned and Ralph Waite, who play the Walton parents Olivia and John, were quoted as saying that it looks as though the show has come to the end of the line and that now would be a good time to drop it so everyone leaves a winner. Later they said that wasn't what they meant and that they would like to see it continue as long as the quality remains high.

Learned admits she's not completely happy with her character, "but then television refuses to portray real women." But she believes The Waltons "fills a need for a lot of people, people who are yearning for a solid family structure." And she thinks that everyone on the show must face up to the fact that the children aren't children any more.

 

Hamner admits the characters of the children are "obviously younger than the actors. We're giving it top attention this season." As an example, Kami Cotler, who plays Elizabeth, the youngest of the Waltons, urgently requested a meeting with Hamner at the start of the current season. "I hope," she told him firmly, "Elizabeth won't have lo pretend any more that she doesn't know where babies come from."

 

He agreed that "We've been writing Elizabeth much too babyish." Of course, when Hamner wrote the special called "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story," which was first televised six years ago and became The Waltons, Elizabeth was a baby, and most of her six brothers and sisters were like so many lovable puppies and as hard to tell apart. Now Kami, 11, likes to discuss Elizabeth's camera angles and staging with directors.

 

On the first special, John-Boy was happy with the Christmas gift of a couple of writing tablets, and Richard Thomas, an engaging juvenile, made it believable and touching. Having a novel published this year is fine, but somehow it's doubtful that it will have the same tug, or Nielsen numbers, as the initial show in which the cowlicked boy has his Daddy get home for Christmas - and bring a present to boot.

 

Thomas says he may come back next season to do a show or two. Hamner hopes that works out, but in the meantime he envisions not only letters from John-Boy but also episodes which the family is grouped around the radio listening to the famous novelist being interviewed. "it happened to me when My first novel was published."

 

In a two-hour special this season Mary Ellen, the oldest daughter married a doctor, and though she and her new husband are staying in the community, it's still another Walton fluttering from the nest. Judy Norton Taylor, 20, who plays Mary Ellen, got married herself a year ago.

 

Jason, the sandy-haired tyke who liked music, has grown into big, jug-eared Jason, the bandleader. Walmsley, 20, who is Jason, grew so fast during one summer hiatus that a flutter of letters accused the show bringing in a new kid. Ben, the mischievous little redhead who always knew how to scrounge a quarter, is now a minor moneybags around Walton Mountain and clearly self-reliant. Eric Scott, 19, who plays Ben, is a flip young sophisticate, a natural casting to play a young Jimmy Cagney. Mary Ellen, Jason and Ben, and the actors playing them, can't pass for children any more and that creates problems for a show on which kids have been as essential as sugar in a candy factory.

 

You can't even call Jim-Bob and Erin little any more. Jim-Bob (David Harper) is going with girls, asking to be called James Robert and building cars. Erin (Mary McDonough), who was supposed to be non-motivated, will sashay off to business school. David himself, 15, is a thoughtful, somewhat withdrawn teenager, and Mary, also 15,. is going through whatever it's like to be an exuberant cheerleader and class beauty. That leaves only Elizabeth, (Kami) who can still be called a child,' and if you do you'll probably get a kick in the shins.

 

On The Waltons outdoor set, Richard Thomas finishes a horseshoe game with Eric, signs autographs for a band of giggling preteen gate-crashers and talks about the show. "When we started I didn't think it had much of a future. Everything since has been a pleasant surprise." He has directed some of the shows because he "was scared. If something scares you enough, you -should do it." This past spring he performed at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles in the play "Merton of the Movies," which also scared him.

On this particular day, shortly before her illness, Ellen Corby and Will Geer (Grandpa) have been having an animated talk session. David Harper slouches by, lost in private thoughts. "David, straighten up," Corby Commands. David pulls himself erect for a couple of steps, tosses her a hurt-angry look and then slumps on.

 

"I love that boy. I love him most of all, Now Eric, it was hard on him when he didn't turn out tall. Now he's doing, exercises and I taught him how to hold his head. Doesn't he look good?"

 

For Corby, "The main fun of this show is being with the kids all the time, watching them grow up." The Walton children, meaning all except Thomas, who goes his own adult way, spend a great deal of their private time together, and Corby tagged along every time she was asked.

"One day this man came on the set, acting like everybody should know him. His name was Elton John. The kids said he gave concerts and they invited me. There was all this loudness, and afterwards I stood on a chair and yelled just like everybody else. I never told them that all the time I was wearing earplugs."

 

At lunch the young Waltons are full of banter and private jokes, reflecting the years spent together on the show. But there also seems a sense of a graduation approaching, an awareness that the Walton kids, ready or not, are becoming the Walton adults.

 

Jon answers questions about his fancy new car and Eric thinks maybe he'll buy something like it. Mary and Eric have just returned from a telethon in Texas, and she tells of Eric's grand manner with the airline champagne. Eric then tells about his late-night trick on the telethon phone. "Here it was three in the morning and I was talking to this kid, and all of a sudden I thought, why is this child up so late? And I said, 'Kid, go to bed'."

 

What happens if and when The Waltons fades away? Says Eric, "We'll stay in the business. We'd be dumb to throw all this away. We have an education in acting and filmmaking. Even if we don't act, there are lots of good jobs around a studio."

 

But Hamner doesn't think they need do anything but The Waltons for a long time. ,We've had it with the Depression and poverty as a theme. The family is now moving into the years just before World War II. All that ferment, with isolationism and Hitler. Those were exciting times and our show will be stronger than ever."

 

Hamner is aware that some people find his show a bit gooey and would be happy to see it disappear. "There was this director I wanted to use and he said no, he was diabetic. I asked him to look at a couple of episodes and he would find that he was wrong. I never heard from him. The show is bittersweet. Things don't always go well, but we try to end on an upbeat note."

 

Whatever its future, The Waltons seems to have provided happy times for its young players, all of whom have been with it since the first special. Kami, sitting in the huge Walton kitchen, said, "It used to be when they told us we were through, I would say, 'Oh. good, now I can go home.' Then one day I knew I was just saying that because everybody says it. I don't really want to go home. I want to stay here forever."



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