Among the rolling hills of rural Virginia sat an old farmhouse with the lights on and a sagging, but welcoming, front porch. In this humble home, the Walton family raised their seven children during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and World War II. John and Olivia Walton never had a lot of money, but the warmth, love and decency they shared with their brood was always enough to withstand any obstacle that fate threw at them.
During nine seasons, from 1972 to 1981, the cast of The Waltons brought their fictional family to vivid life and, in the process, became one of the closest and most supportive troupes of actors a television show has ever created. “Through the stories we told, we really became an extended family,” Michael Learned, who played matriarch Olivia, exclusively shares with Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now.
Richard Thomas, who portrayed John-Boy, adds that the love among them is still strong nearly 40 years after the series’ final episode aired. “We spent more time together than we did with our families at home,” Richard, 69, tells Closer. “Now, all of us stay in touch. And if there is a fan event, we’ll all get together and enjoy that.”
The hard work of making the Emmy-winning drama, based on the childhood memories of creator Earl Hamner, helped bond the actors. Scenes of the large multigenerational group eating around the kitchen table could literally take hours to film.
“By 5 o’clock, I would fall apart and start laughing and then crying a couple of tears,” recalls Michael, 81. “The kids would be flicking mashed potatoes and peas at each other. Everything would be cold and congealed and no one could remember where their forks were.”
When they weren’t needed on camera, the child actors were each other’s classmates and playmates. Kami Cotler, who played Elizabeth, remembers exploring the studio lot with actor David W. Harper, who acted as Jim-Bob. “We used to go down to the western street and pretend to rob the bank as Bonnie and Clyde,” the actress, 55, tells Closer. “We would work together, go to school together and then have lunch together. It would always be a party of 10.”
The actors saw each other frequently outside of work too. “I have pictures of them all at my parents’ house playing volleyball and swimming at a barbecue,” says Mary Elizabeth McDonough, who portrayed Erin on the series. As The Waltons became more popular, the cast would also often attend parades and publicity events together.
“All of the sudden, instead of us being on set in ratty clothes, we were celebrities!” recalls Eric Scott, who played Ben.
As time went on, this uniquely close group also learned they could lean on each other. “We all went through a lot of personal stuff during those years,” Judy Norton, who portrayed the role of Mary Ellen, confides to Closer. “There were marriages and divorces, some of the kids lost a parent. Ellen Corby [Grandma] had her stroke and Will Geer [Grandpa] passed away — we went through all those life events. And for the younger ones, we went through our teenage years on set. You know that’s traumatic!”
Yet no romances developed between the younger actors. “We were more like brothers and sisters,” Eric, 62, says. “We protected each other. If someone started dating someone, we had to check them out.”
However, the show’s parents, acted by Michael and Ralph Waite, did consider taking their mutual crushes into real life. “We were both single and thought we should give it a whirl,” says Michael. “So I drove out to Malibu, but we just looked at each other and thought, ‘Nah.’ I think it was a good thing because it can turn nasty if it doesn’t go well. All our lovemaking was on-screen!”
Ralph, who passed away in 2014, and Michael also credited the show for helping them curb their drinking. “Ralph said, ‘I sat there one day at the kitchen table and all you kids were there and I felt like such a fake.’ He took himself to AA and he stayed sober,” Judy, 62, recalls.
Michael, who was a broke and newly divorced mom when The Waltons premiered, likewise credits the series for saving her life. “I knew I couldn’t do a TV show and take care of my kids and then have cocktails at night and go to bed a little plastered,” she candidly shares.
Today, the Waltons cast has spread out and many are no longer acting, but regardless of the paths they’ve chosen, they remain close. “We have an extended family and it’s as real as I have ever had,” says Eric. “That bond has kept us going for 40 years.”