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Walton's in the Media.
TV Guide
November 20, 1993






 


Coming Home to Walton's Mountain
The real John-Boy, 'Waltons' creator Earl Hamner, looks back on the series that defined an era's family values

By Earl Hamner


Years ago, I wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone. One of my stories was about a man who awoke one morning to find the past and the present blended into a totally baffling world. That script came back to haunt me recently when I walked onto a set at Warner Bros. studio. Twelve years had passed since we our last Waltons episode. The old Walton house burned down, yet there it stood! Our actors had scattered all over the world, but there they were! Everything had changed, but everything was still the same.

 

I was not in the Twilight Zone, though, but about to start filming "A Walton Thanks Giving Reunion" the first complete family reunion since the series went off the air in August of 1981.

 

We Virginians are notorious for our hospitality. In our eagerness to share what we contend is the best possible place and way of life on earth, we have been known to say to people we have only just met "Y'all come to see us!" "Stay awhile!" "Come sit till bedtime!"

 

For 10 years as many as 50 million people would come and"sit till bedtime" at my house every Thursday night


Walton house to be exact, a replica of my mother and fathers home in Schuyler, Va. This is where I was born and where, during the Great Depression, my parents raised their sons and daughters, who were to become models forthe Walton family.

 

When The Waltons first premiered on CBS, quick oblivion was the forecast for this series about a sprawling, economically deprived Baptist family living in the backwoods of Virginia. They went to church, for god's sake! They held hands around the table to ask the Lord's blessing. The children said "sir" to their father. The oldest son called his father "Daddy." Nobody would believe such people! They would be laughed off the air!

 

To everyone's surprise The Waltons became a landmark success in the industry. It touched the heart of a vast audience. It was showered with awards. On The Family Channel where it reruns today it is one of the top rated series. In syndication, it was shown in just about every country around the world.

 

My hometown of Schuyler became a mecca for thousands of fans looking for the"real' Walton's Mountain. At first my mother was delighted by the visitors. And, being a true Virginian, she would invite them in for tea. But when my mother's hospitality proved too exhausting for her (and her tea bill went through the roof), we had to put a fence around the yard to give her some peace.

 

Last year, The Walton's Mountain Museum opened in Schuyler. Thousands of people come to Virginia's Blue Ridge to see, among other things a replica of John Boy's room. The museum is right across the street from the house where I was born, and where my brother James (Jim Bob) still lives. In the past year, more than 30,000 people have found their way to Schuyler and it's not all that easy to find!

 

Over the years, whenever I would receive a request to do a return to Walton's Mountain I'd turn it down. I felt that we had done the series well, and I wanted to leave it there. But a few months ago, I had a change of heart.

 

I agreed to do this reunion because I feel that there is a terrible hunger and need for this kind of television. Especially now. Ever since the Nixon years, we have lived in a world where violence of horrifying scale is reported almost hourly. In such a world I think the audience needs the comfort of touching its roots, of re-visiting some of the traditional American values. We need the comfort of experiencing - even vicariously - a loving, extended, old-fashioned family.

 

This is not a criticism of the family structures of today, but simply a way to say that the old structure wasn't all bad, and that this kind of entertainment gives us a chance to examine it, learn from it, take from it what we will.

When the invitation to do a Walton reunion came, I was in Australia producing my new series for The Family Channel, Snowy River: The McGregor Saga, but I called writers Rod Peterson and Claire Whitaker at their home in Santa Fe, N.M. and they came up with a wonderful idea. I then asked Harry Harris to direct.

 

Even though the original series was set in a remote comer of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, we had often touched upon world events. We had dramatized book burning, the Wall Street crash and the Hindenburg disaster. Just prior to World War II, a family of Jewish refugees fled to the mountain to escape the Nazi horror. NowPeterson and Whitaker came up with the idea of dramatizing how one representative American family weathered the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. When I finished reading the script, I was in tears.

 

The question I am asked most frequently is what has become of my "real" family My mother and father have both died, and so has my brother Cliff, who was the model for the role of Jason. Gone too is my brother Bill. Happily, I still have my sister Marion Hamner Hawkes (Mary Ellen).who is a formidable golfer and a house wife in Richmond, and my brother Paul (Ben), who manages a Baker's shoe store in Ocean, N.J. Audrey Hamner (Erin) is a donor resources consultant with The American Red Cross in Roanoke, Va. My brother James (Jim-Bob) is a senior systems computer analyst for the Health Sciences Center at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and my sister Nancy Hamner Jamerson (Elizabeth) is a boating law administrator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

 

In "A Walton Thanksgiving" John-Boy becomes engaged to Janet Gilchrist, editor of a New York magazine. Janet is in real life my wife, Jane, who has been a patient and understanding companion during these years that television series have demanded so much of my time. Our daughter, Caroline, is working toward her master's in psychology. Our son Scott lives in Vermont and is a writing for As The World Turns.

 

With this Thanksgiving special we can share once again what the series has always tried to say about being a member of the human family: that we are all human, and that no matter how different we may seem from each other --- by race or color, nationality or religion --- we are all related by common bonds and concerns. We may be ordinary creatures, and fragile, but we are still capable of strength and sacrifice and wonder and love and, yes, even nobility.

 

Our special airs this Sunday night. As we say in Virginia, "Y'all come!" "Stay awhile," "Sit till bedtime!"


A Waltons "Where Are They Now?"

By DEBORAH STARR SEIBEL


Richard Thomas is jet-lagged. Just two hours off the plane from Washington D.C. where he's getting rave reviews for his performance in Shakespeare's "Richard II" He finds himself in a familiar, tangled growth of trees on the Warner Bros. back lot in Burbank. He walks away from the cameras and hats for a moment his thumbs hooked in his suspenders, lost in thought 'It's so eerie to be here," says Thomas (John Boy), who left the series after five years to pursue other roles. "I was anxious on the plane because I didn't know how I'd feel, whether I'd feel comfortable or whether I'd feel like I couldn't go home again. I hadn't seen David Harper [Jim-Bob] in almost 17 years. And this morning, it was like we'd seen each other only yesterday".

 

But time marches on. It is, m fact rather startling to find that Thomas is now 42. And Kami Cotler, who plays the 'baby' of the family, Elizabeth is all of 28, married, and a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. She hopes to teach American literature and history.

 

The actors from the series have all had time to carve out their own post-Walton niches. A few have left show behind. But one thing is certain: Real life for the members of one of television's most beloved families hasn't always resembled a picnic on Walton's Mountain.

 

"Let's get a chair over here," calls Harry Harris, the director of CBS's "A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion" concerned about 80-year-old E1len Corby, who plays Esther Walton. Corby suffered a debilitating stroke in 1976. She may look frail, but she's still full of vinegar. Corby waves off the chair, choosing to stand with her cane and wait patiently for the next take. Will Geer, who played grandpa Zeb, died in 1978. 'But we have his place set at the head of the table," says Michael Learned, 54, who plays mother Olivia Walton, "so it's like he's still here."

 

More recently, another loss brought the Walton clan together in 1992: Eric Scott, 35, who plays John-Boy's younger brother Ben, lost his wife of three years, Theresa, to leukemia. "It's been tough," says Scott quietly. "Horrendous." The cancer wasn't discovered till Theresa was in her eighth month of pregnancy. She died two days after giving birth to their daughter, Ashley Elizabeth, now a year old.

 

Scott who's now a marketing vice-president for California's Chase Couriers, tried to continue acting after leaving The Waltons. But he found the process of auditioning and waiting for the telephone to ring intolerable. "I was going crazy," he says. "I think I worked a total of 12 days that first year."

 

Michael Learned also found life after the security of being on a hit series a little rocky. She briefly starred in CBS's short-lived 1981 series Nurse. Then the offers stopped coming. "I was out of work for a 10-year period," says Learned, who is now starring on Broadway in 'The Sisters Rosensweig.' "It was very difficult and very painful"

 

Judy Norton, 35, who plays the oldest sister, Mary Ellen, had a rough transition, too. "I was too well-known for some things, but not a big enough star for others," says Norton. In a bid to change her goody-two-shoes image, she posed for Playboy in 1985. Did it work? "No," Norton says flatly, "and I regret it I realized shortly after I did it that it wasn't the image I wanted to have." Three years ago, she and her third husband, Randy Apostle, started working together in Canadian musical theater as writers, producers, and directors.

 

Richard Thomas made big headlines back in 1981 when he and his wife, Alma Gonzalez, became the proud parents of triplets. But after 17 years of marriage, the two separated last year and are now in the process of divorcing. Gonzalez cited "irreconcilable differences" and is seeking joint custody of the couple's four children. "It's been a little dicey the last couple of years," admits Thomas.

 

But there are happier stories, too. Jon Walmsley (Jason), 37, plays guitar in a country-rock band and married the girl who played his girlfriend on The Waltons, Lisa Harrison. The minister officiating at the 1979 service was none other than Walton patriarch Ralph Waite, a former Presbyterian minister. David Harper (Jim Bob), 32, has become an LA-based scenic painter. Mary Elizabeth McDonough (Erin), 32, who's been married five years gave birth to her first child in 1992. McDonough still does guest television roles and appears occasionally as a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight.

 

But aside from Thomas, it is Ralph Waite who appears to have gained the most from being a member of thisfamous TV clan. After many years on stage, Waite, 64, has appeared m two recent hit movies. 'Cliffhanger' and 'The Bodyguard,' in which he played Kevin Costner's father. A community activist, he is considering a second run in 1994 as a Democratic candidate for a U.S. Congressional seat long held by a Republican in Riverside County,Ca. That's a far cry from the wild days and nights Waite spent when he first played the father on The Waltons.

 

"When I got this job, I was in trouble. I was drinking too much and I wasn't living a very healthy life. I felt so dishonest coming to work every day that I began to drop those things. I stopped drinking and went to a recovery group. I'm still going. The show kind of centered me and reawakened those parts of me that were gentler. In a strange way, the show really saved my life."

 

Whatever the repercussions of being part of what many call "the perfect family," there is a pervasive feeling of euphoria about this television reunion. "It's not like going to a high-school reunion," says Scott, "where you have one night to talk about your resume and how many kids you have and how big the rock on your wife's hand is. We're here for three weeks, doing something productive, something we're really proud of." "None of us," says Thomas, "would have missed this party for anything."

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