It’s been decades since he played the role that made him a household name, but Richard Thomas still hears “Good night, John-Boy” wherever he goes.
“It will be ‘John-Boy Dies’ in the news when I’m gone,” the actor, 71, tells Closer. “And that’s fine with me.”
For the stars who played the close-knit Walton family on the Depression-era drama set in rural Virginia, the bonds they created on the show — which aired from 1972 to 1981 and spawned six TV movie sequels — have lasted almost 50 years. “I still think of them as my family,” says Michael Learned, 83, the Emmy-winning actress who played devoted matriarch Olivia. “Whenever we are together, there’s a lot of joy, laughter and warmth.”
That family feeling made the set a wonderful place to work. “We actually had lunch together almost every single day,” recalls Mary McDonough, 61, who played Erin. “I remember doing another show, and when they called for lunch, all the cast members scattered. I thought, ‘That is so strange! I wonder why they don’t have lunch together?’”
The show’s family meals were also heartwarming on screen, but filming them wasn’t exactly fun. “It would sometimes take hours just to get through the dinner scenes,” says Michael. “By the end, the kids would be flicking mashed potatoes and peas at each other. Everything would be cold and congealed and nasty.”
In between scenes, there were also plenty of hijinks. Richard and the late John Ritter, who played Rev. Matthew Fordwick, were infamous practical jokers. “They were always trying to get one-up on the other and crack each other up,” says Judy Norton, 64, who played eldest sister Mary Ellen.
It wasn’t all laughs. During their years on The Waltons, the stars dealt with their own personal struggles. Ralph Waite, who played patriarch John, battled alcoholism. “He credited the show with being the reason why he got sober and stayed sober,” recalls Judy. “He said, ‘I sat there one day at the kitchen table, and I felt like such a fake.’ And he took himself to AA.”
And even as Olivia and John celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, Michael and Ralph both experienced painful divorces.
Through it all, the closeness of The Waltons’ cast has remained steadfast. Months before Ralph died at 85 in 2014, the longtime friends gathered for dinner at Michael’s home.
For years, the running joke was that the actor couldn’t remember his seven onscreen kids’ names in real life. “After dinner, he addressed each of the kids by name,” recalls Michael. “It was really touching.”
As The Waltons turns 50 in September, it continues to resonate all over the world. “Many fans come up and say, ‘Hey, it’s you, I grew up with you,’ as if I were a childhood friend,” says Richard. “It was a show that was so warm and so full of humanity. People supporting each other, going to bat for each other. There’s always a goodwill feeling, which makes me really happy.”