Michael Learned Interview: Emmy Award-Winning Actress of 'The Waltons' Fame Stars in 'Driving Miss Daisy'
Image attributed to Michael Learned
Four-time Emmy award-winning actress Michael Learned is best known for her role as Olivia Walton from 1972 until 1979 on the CBS family drama series The Waltons (1972-1981), created by Earl Hamner, Jr., based on his book Spencer’s Mountain.
In 1981, Learned starred as Nurse Mary Benjamin in the hospital drama Nurse that ran for two seasons on CBS. Other television appearances include Gunsmoke, Police Story, Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain, St. Elsewhere, Murder She Wrote, A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion, A Walton Wedding, A Walton Easter, Promised Land, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, All My Children, One Life to Live, Scrubs, and Cold Case.
"They cancelled it (Nurse) right before I got the Emmy (laughs). It was doing well in the ratings and I offended somebody at CBS."
Feature films include For the Love of Mary, Life During Wartime, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and Power directed by Sidney Lumet.
On stage, Learned has starred in Steel Magnolias at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and toured with Tom Bosley in the play On Golden Pond. Other stage appearances include Elizabeth the Queen, All Over, The Best Man, Woman in Mind, Picnic, Three Tall Women, and Mary Stuart.
The multi-talented actress also recently concluded a guest appearance on the ABC daytime drama General Hospital portraying terminally ill cancer patient Shirley Smith. She is currently playing the role of aging widow Daisy Werthan in American playwright Alfred Uhry’s excellent character piece Driving Miss Daisy in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.
Learned is married to attorney John Doherty and has three children by a previous marriage to Canadian-American actor Peter Donat; Caleb, Christopher, and Lucas.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you enjoying your time in Canada?
Michael Learned: I’m having the best time of my life! I’m being so well treated and the shows are going well. I’m just having a wonderful time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This is the fifth time you’ve done Driving Miss Daisy, right?
Michael Learned: Yes it is. I love your accent. I’m just drinking it up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thank you.
Michael Learned: Dennis told me you were in Alabama. There is a difference in southern accents so yours sounds like it could be from Georgia actually. I have a friend who lives in Knoxville and when she has a couple of drinks her accent rears its head, but the rest of the time she speaks mid-Atlantic.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m afraid I speak like this when I’m completely sober (laughs). Michael, what is it about Driving Miss Daisy that appeals to you?
Michael Learned: First of all, it’s a wonderful play. It’s a jewel and a perfect play. This woman takes a ride from being prejudiced and not knowing it to an awakening of her prejudices and a realization of the humanity of her relationship with Hoke and how much they love each other. It’s a love story in a way, but it starts from before Civil Rights through Martin Luther King and Civil Rights and on until she and Hoke end up in the old people’s home.
My grandmother had a man who worked for her named Ambrose Lewis who was her chauffeur, who was her Hoke. He did everything. Ambrose knew all the family secrets. He was my grandmother’s confidante. I think he was probably the only man my grandmother really respected. They had a very complicated relationship but it was … I’m not even sure they weren’t lovers … I don’t know.
Ambrose was there for all of us. He drove me to the hospital when I was in labor with my first child, from Connecticut to New York at 2:00 in the morning. He was always there for us and for her and yet at the same time, he had a dignity and heart that made him probably the most popular man in Stanford, Connecticut because everybody loved Ambrose.
I watched the two of them. My grandmother was sort of a fussbudget, a very intelligent woman, and certainly not overtly prejudiced in any way, but you know, there was a certain place. I mean when he drove her around he always wore a chauffeur cap and she always sat in the back. So, in a way, whenever I do the play I feel like I am channeling them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s so interesting that you can compare a real life story to the play. You did some theater in Canada when you were younger, didn’t you?
Michael Learned: Yes, I did a lot of theater in Ontario, also a lot of television here for the CBC, mostly classics. Then I was at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco for several years. That was before The Waltons.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is it about the theater that appeals to you?
Michael Learned: Oh my God, it’s every actor’s dream! When we did The Best Man, The Music Man was playing across the street and they put in their dressing room windows all these welcome signs – Welcome The Best Man, Merry Christmas, things like that. You’re a part of the Broadway family and the whole city embraces you. There’s nothing like it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You enjoy a live audience.
Michael Learned: Yeah, it’s fabulous! I’m having a little bit of that experience now because I feel like I’m part of a company again. They’re just so wonderful to me and are brilliant professionals. So it has the same kind of feeling.
At the end of the show the actors walk up the aisles and wait for the audience in the lobby, so you get to meet them face to face. They come up and talk to you. Many people who come to see Driving Miss Daisy were Waltons fans and it was so meaningful to me to look into their eyes and see how much that show meant to them. I tell them, “When you’re doing a TV show you don’t meet the audience.”
I actually have people coming up to me with tears in their eyes saying how much The Waltons meant to them. It’s a very humbling and touching experience.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure you still hear that today, about 30 years after The Waltons ended.
Michael Learned: You get it when people know you’re in town, otherwise nobody really recognizes me. But it’s nice when I’m doing shows and people come up to me. It makes for a warm and friendly place. If people didn’t like the show, they wouldn’t bother to come up to me (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were hesitant to do a television series when the role of Olivia Walton became available.
Michael Learned: Yes. I’ve always been intimidated by Los Angeles or Hollywood and I still am after all these years. I guess growing up with the sense that it was Hollywood; I still have a little bit of that awe inside of me. I feel much more comfortable in the world of theater.
I wanted to stay in San Francisco. I was hoping that I’d be asked back to A.C.T. but Bill Ball wouldn’t commit to me at the time so I knew I had to get my ass down to LA and at least learn how to drive the freeways so that I could arrive at auditions on time (laughs). So basically I was there just to learn the freeways and meet some casting people and that part (Olivia Walton) was open.
My agent had been trying to get me to come down from San Francisco to read for it and I wouldn’t do it. He said, “You have to go, it’s still open and you have to read for it.” So I did and they asked me if I would test. The next thing I knew I was testing with Richard (Thomas) and Ralph (Waite), thank God, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I just sort of zeroed in on Richard and Ralph and four days later I got a call saying I had the part. It was like a dream.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were a single mom at the time.
Michael Learned: Yeah, I was going through a divorce , had teenagers and wasn’t getting any alimony or child support so I was really strapped financially. It was almost as if God put his hand on my shoulder. I was a wreck emotionally and in every way because I’d been married half my life to my children’s father. I tell students today, “If it has your name on it, it just has your name on it. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I was recently watching some bloopers from The Waltons on You Tube.
Michael Learned: Oh really? Do they show those? Oh they’re funny!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw one with Will Geer and Richard Thomas in a watering hole.
Michael Learned: Were they mooning?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes.
Michael Learned: They did a lot of that!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who was the biggest cutup on the set? Apparently Will Geer had a wicked sense of humor.
Michael Learned: He did, but his humor was not as subtle as Richard’s humor. The two funniest guys in the whole wide world were John Ritter and Richard Thomas when they got together. They were like two outrageous clowns. We’d be falling in the dirt laughing. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the things they did.
They weren’t dirty, just funny. It was clownish. But Will Geer loved to just pull down his pants down and moon everybody. He just loved doing that. I would run screaming from the room!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There was a blooper of you throwing lettuce and the narrator (Earl Hamner, Jr.) was saying, “Mama was famous for her tossed salad.”
Michael Learned: (laughs) I think I’d been tossing that salad for 4 or 5 hours!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A few critics labeled The Waltons as “corny,” but the show dealt with relevant human and social issues.
Michael Learned: It did, especially in the beginning. In the first 5 years we dealt with things like the book burning in Germany, segregation, we were dealing with the Great Depression, and the gypsies. As it went along toward the end it was corny, I think, simply because TV shows sort of run out of steam after a while. The kids by then were grown. It wasn’t the same show.
A television show tends to fall in love with itself after it’s been going for a while. You know, it became sort of, “Well, what do we do with them now? Let’s have another baby or let’s kill the baby or let’s have a wedding.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s kidnap the baby.
Michael Learned: Right (laughs). So I think it became a little bit soapy toward the end. I hate to say that because the producers were wonderful and they did the best they could, but you know everybody was grown up and that was partly why I left the show. There was really no place to go anymore that had the same texture that the first 5 or 6 years had. It had grit to it in the beginning that it lost toward the end.
I personally think it was the critics that kept the show alive in the beginning because the reviews were wonderful and well-deserved as far as Earl Hamner was concerned. He did a good job of presenting Americana, the average American family, during those years during the Great Depression before the Second World War. But when John Boy came back from the war and his face was bandaged and when the bandages came off it was a different face and different voice, that’s when I thought, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think many fans were disappointed when Richard Thomas left the show also. I remember my reaction was, “Oh no.”
Michael Learned: That was my reaction also. I was appalled! I said, “You can’t do this!” But an actor has no power over the executives in a series. Even though Earl was very generous and let us share input even when it wasn’t very good. He was such a gentleman that he dealt with it anyway.
Actors tend to get a little “know it all” after they’ve been playing a character for a long time. That is one of the problems when actors start thinking they know their character and they say, “Well my character wouldn’t do that, my character wouldn’t do this.” When in truth, some of the most exciting things that happen in theater or on television is when a character acts out of character.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s an interesting point. Do you keep in contact with the cast?
Michael Learned: I sure do. We’re all in touch with each other. It’s not on a daily basis anymore because we all have our lives. The kids are all grown up with their own children. But we recently connected at Harry Harris’ funeral. He directed many episodes over the years. We’re like a family and get together for weddings and funerals (laughs). We keep in touch on emails and try to have reunions but we can’t always manage it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m waiting for Nurse to come out on DVD. That was a great show.
Michael Learned: Thank you so much. We worked so hard on that show but I screwed it up. It was very difficult because the scripts were coming out of LA and we were based in New York. I worked very hard and wanted it to be a real gritty show.
We were so burned out when they cancelled it that I didn’t feel the pain of it until I didn’t work again for 10 years because I offended people that I shouldn’t have offended.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You won another Emmy for that show.
Michael Learned: They cancelled it right before I got the Emmy (laughs). It was doing well in the ratings and I offended somebody at CBS. I really understand now what happened, why it happened, and how it happened. I don’t blame anybody but myself. but at the time I just didn’t know any better.
I inadvertently shot myself in the foot. There’s no way to go back and undo things but I would’ve handled it in a much more adult and professional manner today. But, that’s the way it happens.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Those things happen to everyone at one time or another.
Michael Learned: Yes. It wasn’t personal; I was just trying to have a good show. It was my mistake and you have to move forward. There was another show I did in New York called Hothouse that got cancelled because somebody didn’t like the producer, Jay Presson Allen (she did Funny Girl). You know, it’s funny, they say women are emotional but I think men are much more emotional than women. Millions of dollars down the drain just because somebody doesn’t like somebody?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yeah, go figure. Michael, I so enjoyed your role on General Hospital and was sad to see “Shirley Smith” pass away.
Michael Learned: Thank you. I said to my agent, “Don’t you think we need to tell them that I’m committed to go to Sarnia?" I thought we should because Shirley seemed to be lingering on (laughs). So they had to kill me off. I was kind of hoping I could disappear from the hospital to go quietly and die in some corner somewhere and then they could bring me back, but I guess they decided not to.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, I thought the brain surgery would give you more time (laughs).
Michael Learned: I think it might have actually if I didn’t have to come up here. They were very nice. I enjoyed every moment of it (General Hospital) and had a lot of fun. Those kids work very hard, especially the ones that have big storylines. It’s nice there because they all are family people. They come to work every day, do their thing to the best of their ability, and go home and take care of their kids.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was not your first daytime drama. In the past you appeared on All My Children and One Life to Live.
Michael Learned: I was on One Life to Live?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, it was a crossover storyline that involved both All My Children and One Life to Live.
Michael Learned: I was so confused I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what any of the storylines were. I watch television but not daytime because I’m usually out doing stuff. But I didn’t know what I was talking about half the time so I was sort of looking at notes and little crib sheets.
Melisa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I'd think that would be difficult for guest stars, especially if they were not familiar with the storylines. Thankfully you were playing a judge and could have the notes in front of you out of camera range.
Michael Learned: Right (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ralph Waite is appearing (as a recurring character) on Days of Our Lives.
Michael Learned: I know and he’s playing a priest, isn’t he? He is actually a priest! I don’t think Ralph ever won an Emmy and I think he was the best thing on The Waltons. His work was so good that nobody really paid any attention to it because it was so real and so honest.
I saw Ralph recently playing someone’s father on television and he was so good. I called him and said, “You were so funny and so real, just so marvelous!” He said, “Do you think so? I wasn’t sure I was any good.” I said, “You were great!” He told me that he was working all the time now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He has a film coming up that was directed by Corbin Bernsen called 25 Hill.
Michael Learned: I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. I love him dearly. He turned 82 in June and is still going strong.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your son, Lucas Donat, was an actor for a short time, wasn’t he?
Michael Learned: Well, he went to an audition with a friend and he got the part. The film was Damien: Omen II. Lucas was offered a series back then and I said to him, “You know you only get one childhood. If you’re on a series you will not have a childhood, so I want you to think really carefully about whether or not you want to accept this job.”
I urged Lucas not to do the show and he turned it down. I think there may have been a year or two when he was struggling where he wondered whether mama had led him in the right direction, but ultimately he feels that it was the right choice because he’s doing very well now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your other children interested in the entertainment industry?
Michael Learned: Not really. My second son is a drummer and a singer but he gave that up when he got a family. The band never really went anywhere big time. Now he teaches and drives a school bus.
My oldest son is a designer of exhibits for museums and parks. He’s been out of work for a while but things are starting to turn around for him. You know, it’s a tough time for the arts in general. Whenever there’s an economic crunch the arts are always the first to go. They should be the last to go because that’s when we need arts the most to inspire us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ll be at Sarnia’s Imperial Theater until the last part of August with Driving Miss Daisy?
Michael Learned: Yes, I’ll be here until August 20 and then I go further north to a town called Meaford to do the play there for one week and then I go home.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is anything coming up after that?
Michael Learned: Well, they are hoping they might take this show into Toronto. I would love that because I used to live there. I’m supposed to do Driving Miss Daisy at the Lawrence Welk Resort in February and a play in Santa Barbara in April. I’m busy and grateful for it. Oh, I’m also thinking, or sort of in the process, of writing a book.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will it be an autobiography?
Michael Learned: I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet. I don’t want it to be a “tell all” book because I don’t have a lot to tell. But I had a very interesting childhood so I would like to write about that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your father worked for the State Department in Washington, D.C., right?
Michael Learned: He was with the CIA actually. His cover was that he was a writer and we were in Austria five years after the war ended. They put us in a little village while my father was out doing all this spy stuff (laughs). So I want to write about that kind of stuff. We’ll see.
An agency has approached me and has given me a list of writers to choose from. I’ve chosen a young man who can help me figure it all out and put it together. I’ve done an awful lot of writing here and there, but I really haven’t gotten anything cohesive put together, so maybe together we can come up with something.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds great. Perhaps we can speak again with the book is published.
Michael Learned: Let’s hope so, yeah. It’s tough, you know, to write about yourself without writing about yourself.
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