For nine seasons from 1972 until 1981, America knew actors Michael Learned and Ralph Waite as Olivia and John Walton, the married couple parenting eight kids in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II on the beloved TV show The Waltons. But behind-the-scenes, Michael, 79, and Ralph — who passed away at age 85 in 2014 — were much more than just an onscreen Mr. and Mrs.
“It was a story about an enormous family and a mother and father who really loved each other,” series creator Earl Hammer Jr. exclusively told Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now.
“We had a deep love for each other,” Michael said of her five-decade friendship with Ralph. However, the actress revealed that the two decided early on not to turn their onscreen romance into a real-life relationship. “We would have ruined [it] if we had taken that extra step. We thought about it, but we didn’t,” she explained.
Outside of work, Michael faced several personal hardships that Ralph ultimately helped her though. “Oddly though, my personal life wasn’t quite as smooth as my TV life. There were times when I would be sitting on the set wishing I always had a happy ending, too,” she told Closer. At the time The Waltons premiered, Michael leaned on her costar during her divorce from her first husband, Canadian actor Peter Donat. “I was going through a divorce and I was drinking because I was sad and depressed,” she said.
“I wasn’t hiding bottles [but] we’d go out and have lunch and drink wine and then go back on the set a little bit tipsy,” Michael recalled. “Ralph was the one who said, ‘You have a problem.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t. I can stop,’ which I could.”
After her divorce was finalized in 1972, Michael could have entered into a romance with Ralph but the two always chose to keep things professional. “There was a period where Ralph and I were both single and we did love each other. We thought maybe we should give it a whirl,” the actress explained. “So I drove up to Malibu [to see him] but when I got there we just looked at each other and thought, ‘Nah, this will never work.’ We were smart enough not to carry it to the next step because I think it could have gotten really messy.”
“After that, all our lovemaking was onscreen. We became spiritual husband and wife. I think it was a good thing because onset romances can turn nasty … but our love was very deep and very true,” Michael added.
For more on Michael, Ralph and The Waltons, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to[sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!