Through the 1970s, Michael Learned was best known as TV’s Olivia Walton, the warmhearted and hardworking mother of eight on The Waltons. “I was 32. They were looking for a woman in her 40s with long red hair. I had short blond hair,” Michael, 83, recalls to Closer. “Who knows why they picked me? I must have had somebody in my corner.” Michael stayed with the popular Depression-era drama for seven seasons, earning six Emmy nominations for Lead Actress and winning three times.
She has done other rewarding work since The Waltons. Her role in the hospital drama Nurse allowed her to scoop up a fourth Emmy in 1982. She’s also returned frequently to her roots in theater. Earlier this year, Michael starred in a Canadian production of On Golden Pond. She’s also always happy to return to the small screen for a meaty role. This season, she plays the grandmother of a serial killer on Netflix’s series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. “I kind of considered it a character role. And then I realized, no, it’s not a character role. I am that old!” Michael says with a laugh. “They did have to give me a white wig, but just to work was ‘Hallelujah!’ I love working.”
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you discover your love of acting?
“I was in a boarding school in England because I wanted to be a prima ballerina. They had school competitions in dance, tap, ballroom — and I won the drama cup. The teacher pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re not really a very good dancer. Maybe you ought to consider becoming a drama student.’ I had flat feet, and I was already too tall, so she’s the one that really pushed me in that direction.”
Was your family supportive?
“Always, especially my mother. She always encouraged all of us in the arts.”
What gave you your big break?
“My first professional show was off-Broadway. I already had a 2-year-old, and I was pregnant with my second child. I got a review that said, ‘Miss Learned is the most outrageously voluptuous young lady ever to grace a downtown stage.’ That was fun. You know, my boobs were bigger, everything was round because I was pregnant. I was Rubenesque!”
It’s hard to believe that it’s the 50th anniversary of The Waltons. What are some of your favorite memories of the show?
“The time we spent in the makeup room. It was always early morning and everyone’s vulnerable and silly. It’s the room we’d gather in. A lot of times, it was still dark, and then you walk into the makeup room and it’s warm and everybody’s there. That’s a very warm feeling that I have when I think of it.”
You’ve talked before about the close relationship you had with Ralph Waite, who played your husband on the show.
“Whenever I was with Ralph, we had such a nice chemistry and a good friendship. I always enjoyed our scenes together. The scenes I dreaded were the eating scenes at the table. Those were horrible because they went on forever.”
Did you actually have to eat any of it?
“If anyone can say they saw me actually take a bite of food, I’ll give them $50. I just pushed things around my plate. It was the same old mashed potatoes in the scene from the morning until 4 in the afternoon.”
Did your first Emmy win change you?
“No, I don’t think so. It was just such a thrill. I went with my son Chris as my date. It was all very exciting for a starving actor from the theater. Suddenly, they’re sending a limo to pick you up and you’re getting your hair done and wearing a designer dress. I didn’t expect to win. I was just having fun. The first one was a real thrill.”
I know you’re still close with your Waltons costars, but who else have you enjoyed working with the most?
“I worked with Richard Chamberlain. He is a dear, sweet guy. And Paul Sorvino. We did a comedy. Oh, and Richard Gere. I fell madly in love with Richard Gere. Doesn’t everybody?”
What do you do when you’re not working?
“I like to walk. I do the grocery shopping. I schlep. I cook. I walk the dog. I’m a normal person. I’m not thrilled to be a housewife. I much prefer working, but I do have a wonderful husband, so I am lucky there.”
You and John have been married 34 years. What’s your secret?
“I call us the Bickersons because we bicker all the time! We’re both Aries, so we are very strong-willed people. But we listen to each other. If we’ve had a spat or disagreement, John always is willing to come into the room and sit down and hash it out. There are some, but not many, marriages where you sort of join hands and walk off into the sunset with never a crossword. I think our marriage is wonderfully volatile at times, but there is also lots of laughter.”
In addition to your three sons, you have five grandchildren. What’s the best thing about it?
“Everything. Just to hear the kids outside on the patio laughing and fooling around is terrific. The joy of my life was my kids — and they still are. For me, I always got such a kick out of my children and now my grandchildren.”
Did any of your sons follow you into show business?
“My youngest wanted to be an actor, but he did a movie and changed his mind. He’s a producer. My older sons are very talented, too, but chose other fields. My middle is a musician, and my oldest is a designer and an artist.”
What’s the best thing about being the age you are now?
“That you don’t give a [damn] anymore. I don’t care what people think about me anymore. I’m glad to be alive. I embrace life. I don’t particularly like L.A. I wouldn’t live here by choice, except I’m married to a husband who needs to be here. But I get up in the morning and look out the window and go, ‘Another sunny day in paradise.’ Every day is a gift when you are 83.”