By Brian O’Keefe
If you had a television and free time on Thursday nights in the 1970s, then there’s a very good chance you knew “The Waltons,” the iconic TV family that brought heart and family ties to the airwaves each week.
The show went off the air June 4, 1981, after nine seasons, but it never left the hearts of its fans, who rooted for the Walton family as they made their way through the Great Depression, living off the saw mill on Walton’s Mountain.
Entertainment Weekly magazine brought the entire cast together again on Sept. 12 at the Warner Brothers Ranch Lot in Burbank for their annual reunions issue in a heartfelt sit-down interview that had the actors looking back at the very serious issues their family show addressed.
“We dealt with segregation. We dealt with the book burning. We dealt with Jewish people coming over to the United States at the beginning of the war,” said Michael Learned, who played “Olivia Walton,” the family’s matriarch and mother of seven.
“One of the most moving scenes to watch is in the episode about the book burning,” said Judy Norton Taylor, who played “Mary Ellen,” referring to a famous episode in which the oldest Walton child, “John-Boy,” played by Richard Thomas, stops locals from burning German books.
“There was just this incredibly powerful scene,” Taylor said.
Another episode the cast members agreed sticks with them even today, 32 years after the show ended, is a 1976 episode in which the family’s house burnt down. The episode, they said, showed how much of a real family, both on- and off-screen, they all were.
“We all stood out in the yard and watched the house burn and sobbed,” recalled Taylor. “There was no acting.”
“I watched my brother run back into the house and wondered if my sister was still in there, and you know, it was just, like it was so real,” she said.
Kami Cotler, “Elizabeth Walton,” was just 10 at the time that episode was filmed. Her castmates recalled her crying thinking they were really stuck inside the burning home.
“It was real, for a flash,” Cotler said.
“We were with each other more than we were with our own families, so they are siblings,” said Mary Beth McDonough, “Erin Walton” on the show.
The patriarch of “The Waltons’” fictional family even credits the show with saving his life.
“Playing the father on ‘The Waltons’ reminded me what it meant to be a father and a husband,” said Ralph Waite, who played “John Walton, Sr.” “I stopped drinking after a couple of months. All kinds of things changed.”
Waite also changed things for his cast members.
“I called Ralph the other day and said, ‘Ralph, thank you for being such a good actor, because all I did was react to you,’” said Learned, his on-screen wife. “It was that love, that exuberance that John Walton had for his wife that was, I think, so wonderful.”
“We had a wonderful chemistry, all of us,” she said. “It was very real.”
A Walton family reunion could not end without a special tribute to the young man who led the show, “John-Boy Walton,” played by a then-21-year-old Richard Thomas. It was through the eyes of “John-Boy,” an aspiring novelist who eventually fulfilled his dream, that the family’s story was told.
“Twenty-one years old, and somehow you handled yourself so professionally,” Learned told Thomas. “Somehow you carried that show, at a very young age, with great aplomb and graciousness and dignity. And you were marvelous.”