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Walton's in the Media.

Lady's Circle - August 1974
 

 






The Enigmatic Michael Learned

Is it possible to be a star - making many thousands a week, and still have privacy?

By Flora Cotton

Michael Learned probably doesn't realize it, but right now she is living in the best of two possible worlds. As Olivia Walton the mother in the nation's No. 1 TV series, "The Waltons," she is fantastically successful career-wise, winner last year of an Emmy for the best actress in a series. And the money her success has brought with it! As one of her old-time friends said recently, "When she was making $500 a week, she thought, she was the luckiest person in the world. Now she's making $5,000 - or is it $10,000 -she is completely staggered."

 

But at the same time, Michael is still an almost complete unknown. She was so unknown when she won her Emmy last year that the presenter announced her as Michele Learnd. And the following day, she laughs, she lunched at Warner Brothers, thinking everyone would recognize her, only to find her reservation in the name of Mr. Michael Learned.

 

This spring, when she came to New York to present a Tony award, you'd have thought that finally she would be recognized, but when she appeared on stage, all blonde and chic and beautiful, almost nobody realized this stunning lady was drably pretty Olivia Walton of the CBS-TV series.

 

And during the week or so she spent in New York visiting one of her six sisters, she was able to shop. . . go to the theatre and restaurants without attracting the hordes of autograph-seekers who make it their business to ferret out celebrities.

 

Elizabeth Taylor should be so lucky! But, like most people being a bit perverse, Michael isn't altogether happy. She wants, a friend reported, to be a movie star. Well, why not? Looking at her across the page as she appeared at this years Tony Awards, she sure looks like one, in the tradition of Joan Crawford, Olivia DeHavilland and Barbara Stanwyck.

 

Of course, at. 35 she's just a teeny bit old to start a movie career. But with the Waltons under her belt, she wouldn't exactly be starting from scratch. She must have offers! So don't be surprised if the name Michael Learned appears one of these days on the big screen - above the title of the picture, of course.

Michael was born in Washington, D.C., and her name is really Michael, though she doesn't know exactly why. When she asks her parents, they've always answered that they thought it was "cute," or "witty," or something. And she's stuck with it, though it must have given her plenty of trouble from time to time.

The oldest of six girls, she very naturally mothered her younger sisters as the family moved from the nation's capital to New England to Austria, where her father "was, doing something for the State Department." Looking after five younger sisters must make mothering the Walton brood of six come easy - particularly with a script.

 

She spent some time at school in England and at 17, when she was an apprentice at the Stratford, Conn., Shakespearean Theatre, she met and married actor Peter Donat, nephew of British actor Robert Donat.

They lived and worked for a time in New York, very Off Off Broadway ... later went to Canada, and eventually wound up at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.

 

During this time, the emphasis was on Peter's career. Michael's chief role was as mother to their three sons Caleb, 16; Christopher, 14; and Luke, 10. Her acting was mostly the result of their needing the money and she took whatever jobs would tide them over financially. In spite of this she did, however, become familiar on Canadian television and in San Francisco repertoire, where she played everything from "The Rose Tattoo" to "The Merchant of Venice."

 

Her agent kept urging her to invade Los Angeles, particularly after she and Peter were divorced, but Michael was terrified at the idea. It took a lot of persuasion on his part to get her to try out for the role of Olivia Walton, but once she was tested, there wasn't any question. The part was hers, and Michael and her three sons settled down in Glamourville as successes began to pile up.

 

When a person is working on a television series, she doesn't have much time for anything else. Unlike Olivia Walton, Michael doesn't sew and cook and bake and preserve. The days are long, often 12 or 14 hours, and during hiatus periods she always has a million things to do. Success brings requests for interviews and personal appearances. There are sessions at the photography studio of the kind that made this cover possible. And success brought with it more demands on her time.

 

Which is all just a prelude to saying that Michael Learned doesn't hustle home from the studio and cook dinner for herself and the kids-even though she loves to cook. She doesn't spend her evenings and weekends dusting and waxing and scrubbing the kitchen floor. She has a housekeeper who looks after things for her. What free time she has, she'd rather devote to her sons, who are more excited about Michael's success than she is.

 

What will happen to her in the end, of course nobody knows. No TV series goes on forever and the country is full of one-time big TV stars who are nowadays working "on the road," practicing their craft in one-night stands in Oshkosh, St. Petersburg and Des Moines. Maybe Michael will be one of them.

On the other hand, she may have become the movie star she thinks now she would like to be, traveling from country to country with an entourage of a dozen, her name blazoned on marquees, herself front-page news all over the world.

 

But then, of course, she would have lost much of her freedom.

Right now, Michael Learned has the best of both worlds. It's not every day a woman can be a smashing success and an unknown at the same time.

 

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