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Michael Learned Interview: How Race Relations Impacted "Waltons" Icon

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Image attributed to Michael Learned

Michael Learned

Michael Learned is best known for her television role as Olivia Walton in The Waltons, the popular and critically-acclaimed 1970s series about a rural family in Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II. The Waltons first aired on television September 14, 1972, and the original run ended on June 4, 1981. For that show, Learned won three Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (1973, 1974, 1976). Her next starring role on television came in 1982 as Mary Benjamin in the medical drama series Nurse, which also garnered her an Emmy Award even though the show aired only 25 episodes (including the pilot).

Learned has made numerous guest appearances on television and has appeared in many stage productions on Broadway, off Broadway and elsewhere. For the critically acclaimed short film, Second Acts, she won Best Actress at the Hollywood Women’s International Film Festival. Second Acts is about two childhood friends who were kept apart because of race but find each other again later in life.

"The kids would say, “We have nothing against Negroes. We just don’t want to eat with them.” I think they would say “Negro” back then, if they were being polite, that is. But that was just appalling to me. It still is."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Michael, how are you and your husband doing during the pandemic?

Michael Learned: We’re doing what you’re supposed to do. We wear our masks, and we wash our hands. We’re being careful. It’s really bizarre. I never thought in my lifetime that I would see people walking around in masks. It’s like a war.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I know what you mean. It takes some getting used to. Congratulations for winning Best Actress at the Hollywood Women’s Film Festival for your performance in the short film Second Acts. How did you become involved in the project?

Michael Learned: Gerry Pass is the producer, and he came to me and said that he wanted to be my manager. I said, “No. I don’t need a manager right now. I don’t have enough stuff that needs to be managed.” So feeling rejected and kind of crawling away, Jerry said that he had this short film he wanted me to do, a sweet little love story that could actually make a feature film where there’d be the older people, but they’d go back to what their lives were like as children when they couldn’t be together. It’s sort of like the Lelouch film And Now My Love where the two people who really love each other get separated, and then at the very end of the film, they come together.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s only 13 minutes long. Have you ever done a short film?

Michael Learned: No, I haven’t. We only shot, I think, for five days, and that’s a luxury. In television, you have five days to do an hour show, so five days to do a film is kind of luxurious really. It was really nice. John Wesley, God rest his soul, is no longer with us. He was wonderful to work with, and he wasn’t well, but he was such a trooper. The whole thing was just an experience of love. I don’t think anybody was getting paid. We were all there to make this movie.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You play Lee Marston in the film, and her parents were racist.

Michael Learned: Yeah. John Wesley’s character and Lee played together as children, and then her father moved her away to break them up. If they made a feature film out of it, that would probably be the middle of the film. The main would be the children, then their separate lives, then how the two of them come back together at the end and then their last years together because they really loved each other. But there was a time, and it still is unfortunately, when people didn’t want to mix the races. I don’t even like to think of race anymore. I like to think we’re all one race, the human race. But unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sometimes, the older generation is given an excuse by saying, “That’s just how it was in those days,” when in reality, there is no excuse for that behavior or mindset.

Michael Learned: When I was 16, I went to school in Washington, D.C. I went to Western High School, which is no longer there. But there were no black kids in the school. In my class in my junior year, they brought in an African-American teacher and a student, and they were both very light skinned. I made friends with the girl. She was persecuted by the other students. They would throw bread at us. They would jeer at us when we were walking around the track. It was really very nasty, and I would get into violent arguments. The kids would say, “We have nothing against Negroes. We just don’t want to eat with them.” I think they would say “Negro” back then, if they were being polite, that is. But that was just appalling to me. It still is. Like, what are you talking about? And that’s still around, unfortunately. I keep hoping it’s getting better, but I’m not sure it’s all that much better. How do you change people’s hearts?

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Great question. But even if that happened, it wouldn’t stop the violence. The Waltons addressed racism with Verdie and Harley, the kids in that family and the struggles they went through because they were black. It really was a groundbreaking storyline.

Michael Learned: There was another one with a little orphaned black boy. John brings him home, and I think Earl Hamner very honestly dealt with the story, saying that the Walton family couldn’t keep him. We buy him a pair of new shoes, and John takes him over to Verdie’s house, and Verdie fosters him. There’s a shot that I remember, because I burst into tears, of John walking away, and the little boy is standing there with the shoes hanging around his neck just watching him go. Ralph Waite was such a good actor. He never turned around. He just kept walking. But you just could feel from his back that he was brokenhearted. But it was what had to be in those days.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was also the story of the Jewish refugees moving to Walton’s Mountain. That was another groundbreaking storyline.

Michael Learned: Yes. The book burning and everything. I was really sobbing. I mean, I wasn’t acting. I was just really sobbing when John Boy pulled the Bible out of the fire.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Just one of Richard Thomas’ powerful performances on the show. I recently watched a clip of Ellen Corby (Grandma) being interviewed by Johnny Carson.

Michael Learned: Oh, really? I’ve never seen it. I’ll look for it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Ellen Corby definitely seemed like an interesting person. Carson asked her if her role on The Waltons was difficult. She answered, and I’m paraphrasing, “If the acting job was hard, I wouldn’t do it.”

Michael Learned: (laughs) She loved to be working. Will Geer, of course, was blacklisted during that whole McCarthy debacle.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did he ever talk about it?

Michael Learned: Not much. If you asked him, he’d talk about it. But you knew that he was just so grateful to have a steady job. He never complained. I complained sometimes about the hours because I was always torn because I had kids at home. I was spending more time with the kids on set than I was with my own. So there were times when I had promised to take my son to the dentist because we were only going to shoot until three, and I’d be done. Then suddenly, the weather would change or something, and I couldn’t get home to get him, and I’d have to make arrangements for somebody else to take him. It was stressful for me at times because I felt my kids needed me, and here I was spending 15 hours on a set.

But Will had no distractions. This was like the pinnacle of his career for him, and after what he went through with the whole McCarthy thing, he was just extremely grateful and blessed. He had a wonderful time. He was just great. Richard was, too. He never complained. Richard was always bright, kind, open and fun. Ralph and I were crazy about each other. So I think that came across on the screen. We really adored each other, and we had a wonderful time together. Generally, it was such a happy group. We were very lucky. Can you imagine spending 15 hour days with people you can’t stand? I hear stories about it. But I’d have to quit if that was the case.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve talked about your drinking problem and that Ralph Waite helped you. Wasn’t he an alcoholic also?

Michael Learned: Absolutely. He was. But I didn’t think I was. I just thought I was drinking more than I normally did because I was going through the divorce. I had been married since I was 17, so to be out on my own with all of the Hollywood stuff which I wasn’t familiar with was all weird to me. I mean, limos are picking me up. It was such a new world. It was interesting and all that, but I was a little overwhelmed by it all, and I was going through an emotional sadness over the failure of my marriage.

Anyway, Ralph got sober, and I said to him, “That’s wonderful. I really support you. I think it’s good you’re getting sober.” I was going to go to a meeting with him just to support him, but I was tired and said I’d take a rain check. Ralph put his hands on my shoulders, he looked me in the eye, and he said, “I think you should come, too.” I went, “Me? I don’t have a problem.” (laughs). I learned that I was drinking too much for all the wrong reasons. So I fell off the train early. I didn’t kill any of my kids or run over anybody or get a DUI. I got off the train early, but I’m grateful to be off the train.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: In season two, episode seven of The Waltons, your ex-husband, Peter Donat, played your old boyfriend. Talk about art imitating life.

Michael Learned: He did, yes. That was a little strange. I wanted him to do it. I wanted them to use him, but I sort of had a little breakdown after that. I really did love him. He’s the father of my kids. But things were just very dysfunctional, and he, at the time, was okay with the way things were. I wasn’t. So I had to leave him. But it was very painful to do so. I don’t understand people who say, “I got a divorce and never looked back.” I don’t get it. If you love somebody, does that love just stop? I don’t understand. So I loved him, and I still do. We remained close and loving friends. But the marriage was just not going anywhere, and I was starting to act out myself, and that’s not who I am. So I needed to get my own life back, and I did.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I thought Nurse was a really good show. You filmed in a real hospital?

Michael Learned: We did, in the Metropolitan Hospital in New York. We were in a ward. (laughs) I learned later it was a Psych Ward. I said, “Do we just think we’re shooting a TV show here? Are we really just a bunch of lunatics?” (laughs) It was very difficult. Robert Halmi was a lovely man, but I think it was his first series that he had produced. We were getting scripts from LA saying, “Mary goes home and soaks in her hot tub.” My character, Mary Benjamin, was living in an apartment in Harlem. I’m a detail-oriented person. I would say things like, “This is New York. Mary doesn’t have any locks on her doors. The first thing you do in New York is you lock your door when you get back to your apartment.” I would say, “We need some locks on the doors, and there are no hot tubs in Harlem. You do not go home and soak in your hot tub in Harlem.” So there were little things like that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You just wanted the show to accurately portray life in New York.

Michael Learned. Yeah. But I was a pain in the ass, so they didn’t like me. But I don’t care. I like correct details.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: There’s nothing wrong with wanting everything to be as accurate as possible. In fact, that’s a great trait to have.

Michael Learned: That’s true. I’m not ashamed of it. I did want things right. That’s all I wanted. They did bring in New York writers, and they were wonderful. So I was happy, and I wanted us to keep going. But, unfortunately, I guess I pissed people off at CBS, so they cancelled the show. It was too bad because the show was getting better and better.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was also some great onscreen chemistry between you and Robert Reed.

Michael Learned: He was very good in the show. But we were in hospital rooms with cockroaches crawling up the walls with just a couch and a glass table from somewhere. It was horrible working conditions. But my hat’s off to Robert Reed. He decorated his little hospital room. He painted it, got lamps, hung pictures and turned it into this charming little dressing room while I was sitting in my room counting the cockroaches (laughs). He made the best of the situation. He never complained. He was so professional. He was a good man.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I have stumbled across a Puritan Oil commercial from 1986 where you were wanting to fight saturated fats (laughs).

Michael Learned: (laughs) Money! Purely for the money! I got a call from John Vernon. He and his wife were old friends from Toronto years ago when I was married to Peter. He called me up and said, “Michael! I just saw your Sine-Aid commercial!” I did the Sine-Aid Society ad for the same thing, just for the money. If you don’t work for periods of time, you still have to pay the bills.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I just watched a couple of episodes of Living Dolls (1989), a Who’s the Boss spinoff with Leah Remini and Halle Berry. Did you audition for the role of Patricia “Trish” Carlin?

Michael Learned: I think I did audition. I think I auditioned in New York on tape. But I think they had pretty much made up their minds. I think it was just a formality, to tell you the truth. They were confused. What I thought they wanted was kind of a tough character, but what they were wanting was a Charlotte Rae character like she was in Facts of Life. They were the same producers, and I think that’s what they really wanted, but that’s not what my understanding was. So there was always a little bit of conflict, like who am I supposed to be playing?

There was a lot of confusion, and we had trouble with the scripts. I’m really sorry it didn’t go because Leah Remini and the girls were just divine, and doing a half-hour sitcom is a joy compared to doing an hour. I really liked it, but I think they just didn’t know quite where to go with it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe Living Dolls was Halle Berry’s first acting job.

Michael Learned: By the way, she is an angel. She is the sweetest human being. For somebody so beautiful, she is just the most open, warm, dear person. All of them were, but Leah’s a little tougher. Halle’s like an open flower. She was lovely. Leah’s a little tougher but not in a mean way, but I think she knows how to take care of herself. I’m in love with Halle. I just adore her.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are your grandchildren in the entertainment business?

Michael Learned: Well, I have a granddaughter who has been living with us. She moved out but will be moving back for a while. She’s an actress. I have another granddaughter who’s a singer. She’s Helen Reddy’s granddaughter as well, so she sings and writes songs. I have a grandson who’s going to be a physicist. They’re all great.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You've mentioned to me in the past that you are “thinking or sort of in the process” of writing a book. I believe that we spoke about it again last year. So how’s that process going?

Michael Learned: I picked up a computer today wondering how I could even put this stuff in a book. They’re just little flashes, little thoughts and observations. Half is on one computer, and half is on another. So I printed out some of them, but I need to really get down to work with somebody who can help me put it all together, then send it off to an editor who will send back notes. I can either do that, or it’ll get published after I die along with all of my mistakes as a human being (laughs). You thought she was a good person? Well, let me tell you this (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) You did say you wanted to write about your interesting childhood since your father was in the CIA.

Michael Learned: It was interesting. I’m thinking of proposing a series because my stepmother was actually born from a very wealthy family in Lima, Peru. She’s Peruvian, and she and my father met. I don’t know how they met, but she got into the CIA as well, and she was a translator. She drank very much and smoked. They all did. But she was very much a lady. She spoke better English than I do. I just adored her. Every now and then, this lady would suddenly appear in camouflage, the kind that would go down in boots, with a jacket and a cap like an army uniform. She’d hop into a helicopter, and they’d whisk her away to some secret place. She was helping Fidel Castro’s daughter defect. When she defected, she was doing all the translating for that. So she had all these secrets.

She was living with her daughter, her husband and grandchildren, and I thought that would be an interesting series about a grandmother. Some people that you know may work for the CIA, but if you found out, you would never have dreamed that they worked for the CIA. They have secret lives. You’d never dream my stepmother did what she did if you met her socially or whatever. Then she’d come home, get into her fatigues, fly off in a helicopter and translate some very secret stuff. I’m just thinking that might be a fun series actually because you could deal with the family, too. The younger people would be very much a part of it. What do you think?

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I think it sounds like a fascinating premise with unlimited possibilities. I say, go for it. You know, you will always be remembered as Olivia Walton.

Michael Learned: And I don’t have a problem with that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And I know you loved your time on The Waltons. But the more I get to know you, the more I believe your true first acting love just may be the theater.

Michael Learned: Well, my comfort is theater. I’m more at home in the theater. First of all, you get a chance to rehearse, so you get to bond with your fellow actors. The Waltons became like a family, too, but I just love the words in theater. Mostly in television, you say the words, and there’s more going on, but TV isn’t meant for words. It’s visual. And I love words. I’ve always loved to read. I’ve always loved the classics. So to do theater is ultimately more fulfilling for me.

Also I love an audience. You may be feeling totally crappy like your life is over, then you have to show up at the theater, but then you get that first laugh, and it suddenly just lifts you up. So theater is my first love. But now that I don’t have kids at home, I find I enjoy doing TV, too, but back then it was always hard because days were long, and I always felt pulled by my own kids. I don’t have that problem anymore, so I wouldn’t mind another series. But nobody wants me, so what am I going to do?

Smashing Interviews Magazine: My motto has always been, you never know what could be right around the corner. You just might be offered a role in another great TV series.

Michael Learned: True. You never know. That’s the thing about this business. It can turn around tonight.

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