Michael Learned Interview: "The Waltons" Reunion and 50th Anniversary
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Actors
Image attributed to Michael Learned
Four-time Emmy Award-winning actress Michael Learned is best known as Olivia Walton in The Waltons, a long-running CBS series about a family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II. The show was created by Earl Hamner, Jr., based on his 1961 book Spencer’s Mountain and the 1963 film of the same name. In addition to Learned, Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, Ellen Corby, Will Geer, Judy Norton, Jon Walmsley, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, Eric Scott, David W. Harper and Kami Colter also starred as members of the iconic family.
Other TV appearances include Gunsmoke, Nurse, St. Elsewhere, Living Dolls, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, All My Children, General Hospital, The Young and the Restless and numerous movies. Learned will portray Jeffrey Dahmer’s grandmother in the upcoming Netflix series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and joins a cast which includes Evan Peters, Richard Jenkins, Penelope Ann Miller and Niecy Nash. She has been married to John Doherty since 1988.
"I can’t imagine spending eight years together and not getting along. I can’t even imagine that."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Hi Michael, are you and your husband still trying to navigate your way through this pandemic?
Michael Learned: We’re still wearing masks here. I guess they’ve lifted the mask mandate in some places, but people are still wearing masks here in LA. It’s just unreal.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have any stage performances coming up?
Michael Learned: Well, I’m going to do On Golden Pond in Canada this summer. I just finished doing four episodes of a 10-part series for Netflix.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. I want to talk go you about that in a few minutes. Was On Golden Pond the play you planned to do with Hal Linden before the pandemic?
Michael Learned: It was supposed to be with Hal, but I think he has withdrawn for some reason. I don’t know why, but I’m disappointed. They’re using a very well known Canadian actor, Walter Borden, who is a wonderful actor. I’ve worked with him before. We did Driving Miss Daisy together before in that theater.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, I’m sure you know that there will be a Waltons reunion in Virginia this June to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the show.
Michael Learned: Yeah. John and I are going. I think it’s June 3rd and 4th. Then I start rehearsal in Canada on the 14th of June. So it’s perfect timing. I always love those reunions because we have a good time together as a second family, and the fans are always really warm and very sweet.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you know of any other cast members who will attend?
Michael Learned: No. I don’t know who else is going, but they usually show up because we enjoy each other. I can’t imagine spending eight years together and not getting along. I can’t even imagine that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Does it feel like 50 years since that very first episode?
Michael Learned: No! Don’t even say that (laughs). It’s humiliating. I can’t even believe it was 50 years ago. Remember when you were little, and you’d hear the adults saying, “Oh, I’ve known him for 20 years,” and you’d think, “How could you know somebody for 20 years?” Here I am having done the series 50 years ago. Geez.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you have any clue The Waltons would continue to be so popular 50 years later?
Michael Learned: No. It’s touching in a way. I think it was a stroke of genius that it’s set in the Depression, so it’s kind of timeless in that sense. It just falls into the classic category in a way. It moved up to 1950, I think, after I left. It went on another season, believe it or not. I can’t imagine how it could have gone on without me, but it did (laughs). Humbling (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I read that Henry Fonda was considered for the role of John Walton, especially since he starred in Spencer’s Mountain (a film based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Earl Hamner). After watching the pilot, Fonda turned it down saying, “The family is the star. You don’t need me.”
Michael Learned: That’s true. But most actors, if they don’t have to do a series, prefer not to. I don’t blame them because doing a series is long, long enduring work. It really is. Thank God if you’re working with people you care about because you can have some fun. Those kids were adorable. They were mischievous and fun. They kept us entertained. Still with 12 to 14-hour days, you’re pretty wiped out.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was the youngest the most mischievous?
Michael Learned: The one that had the greatest sense of humor was Eric Scott. I adored him. I adored them all really. David Harper was kind of quiet and sweet. But Eric was a cutup. He and Richard were always coming up with something. Richard and John Ritter together were horrifyingly funny.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When was the last time you watched an episode?
Michael Learned: Oh, a long time. I don’t watch it unless I come across it. Then I’ll watch it. I usually enjoy it, but I don’t make a point of watching it. I’m not sure it’s still on. Is it?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe it’s always streaming somewhere.
Michael Learned: (laughs) I think I got a six-cent residual a couple of weeks ago.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The relationship between Olivia and John and then their relationship with the children seemed so loving and natural with the touches, the hugs. Were some of those nonverbal actions ever adlibbed?
Michael Learned: Always. Always. I don’t think you can fake that kind of love because you’d only do it up to a point not for eight years. We were truly a second family. I adored Ralph. He loved me as well. We were very, very good friends, and the kids were like our kids, in a way, while we were on the set. My kids paid the price for it because I was away 12 hours of the day, and they’d all be waiting at the door with their problems of the day when I walked in. We didn’t have cell phones then.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I always thought it was interesting for Olivia to be a very religious person trying to convince John to be Godly and go to church and funny that Ralph Waite actually had a theology degree.
Michael Learned: Yes! He was a Presbyterian minister!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were your religious views at the time?
Michael Learned: I am not a religious person. I believe in God. But I go to Catholic church with my husband. I was baptized Episcopalian. I find God in nature mostly.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Like John Walton did.
Michael Learned: (laughs) I guess, yeah, or grandpa.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was it awkward or strange at first to work with Robert Wightman, the actor who replaced Richard Thomas?
Michael Learned: Yes. I felt sorry for him because by that time, we were all pretty close and pretty bored. Especially among the kids, there was a lot of fooling around and making jokes before a take. We were very comfortable, and he was new. I’ve had that experience since then myself when I’ve guest-starred on a show where everybody’s at ease, but you’re the new guy. You want to make it right, and you’re not quite sure if you’re doing it correctly.
I felt sorry sometimes for guest actors who came on. I think we were trying. We were never unpleasant to anybody that I can remember. But we weren’t that reverent when it came to a take, you know. We’d be kidding around before the take, and then we’d get serious. These other actors were trying to do their best with strange people coming up around them. It was kind of thoughtless on our part in a way.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The show may have lost a little of its appeal when Richard Thomas left.
Michael Learned: Well, it did, and I felt sorry for him. How do you fill those shoes? I mean, John Boy. And here’s the new John Boy. We all hated it. Taking the bandages off, and here’s a new face on John Boy and a new voice. I hated it. We all did. So we tried very hard not to take it out on this poor kid. It wasn’t his fault. He’s just an actor who was given a job. We didn’t take it out on him. We were very kind to him. He was a sweet guy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: If you could go back in time and do it all over again, would you still leave the show?
Michael Learned: Yes. I would. I don’t regret leaving. I was bored to tears, quite frankly, because they always wanted me in the scene. So I’d be ironing and asking the kids what time it was and saying that it was time for bed, things like that. As an actor, that gets old no matter how much they’re paying you.
In the beginning, you’re just so grateful that you’ve got a job that’s paying you enough money to buy a house because you don’t make any money doing theater. Then after a while, you have a little comfort in the bank, and you’re feeling pretty stable financially. Then you’re pouring coffee all day long and thinking, “What am I doing here?”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Understandable. Do you think that a reboot of the show using other actors, of course, would make it in today’s television landscape?
Michael Learned: I think the real success of The Waltons was not just our chemistry, which thankfully, we had, but it was also Earl Hamner who was such a great storyteller, especially in the early days of the series. You could almost show those episodes in the classroom as kind of the history of this country, the Depression and what people were going through. He hit all the marks, and he told stories around what was going on in the world at that time. So I think, for a series like that to happen again, there has to be a good storyteller at the helm.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I agree. Last year, you announced on Facebook that you were a part of Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The comments from fans on that post were mainly congratulatory, but there were a few that said things like, “That’s as far away from Walton’s Mountain as you can get,” and that they were disappointed Mama Walton would take a role that glorified a serial killer.
Michael Learned: (laughs) I never real all that stuff. I spare myself.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How would you answer the naysayers?
Michael Learned: I would answer that I’m an actor. I was offered a role by one of the greatest producers of our present day. It’s a true story, and of course, I would do it again. In fact, next time, I hope I actually get to play the serial killer. Those are the fun parts to play. Playing a nice person all the time is boring. I have no apologies for that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You play Jeffrey’s grandmother, and anyone who’s familiar with the story knows that’s an integral role. Can you describe the character?
Michael Learned: I’ve been forbidden to speak about that, but the grandmother was unaware of what was going on in her home, which gives new meaning to the word “denial,” I guess. I’m not really allowed to speak much about it, which is unfortunate because I’d love to talk about it! (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. I know you’re not allowed to elaborate. But I am interested in how it came about.
Michael Learned: I was asked to do it. I was thrilled to be asked by Ryan Murphy. I was familiar with some of his projects, one of which Sarah Paulson starred in, and she’s a friend of mine. We worked together in New York. I think all of his shows are really good. These scripts are terrific. It’s a horrific topic, but the scripts were good and well written. I’m happy to work. I’m happy if I get a job, so I feel very grateful.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Evan Peters is a wonderful talent.
Michael Learned: He really is. He’s one of the greats of all time, I think. And he’s the nicest person. I’m allowed to say that. He truly is a sweetheart of a person. Why he’s always playing these horrible people, I don’t know. But maybe he gets that out of his system at work, so he can be such a great guy in real life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, I saw Evan in the miniseries Mare of Easttown, and he played a police detective.
Michael Learned: Oh, good! (laughs) I haven’t watched that, so I’ll look it up. That makes me feel better. He’s just a doll. In fact, the whole experience for me, oddly enough, was lovely. I enjoyed every minute of it even though it was a really dark subject.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sometimes, the dark subject matter is emotionally difficult to leave on the set when the day is over.
Michael Learned: Well, yeah. There’s that. Yes. That did sort of hang out over us a little bit, I think. I can’t speak for Evan, but I imagine he has to shake off that character when he gets home.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I was saddened to hear about the passing of Helen Reddy who was the mother of your daughter-in-law.
Michael Learned: That was sad. My daughter-in-law has lost both her father and her mother. She lost Helen, and her dad just died a month or two ago, so she’s really had a rough time. I’m blessed with her. She’s handling it all so gracefully, but it’s tough.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How’s the rest of the family?
Michael Learned: They’re fine. My son is driving the car as we speak. My husband is in the car probably monitoring every mistake I’m making. I’m kidding. He takes care of me. He’s a sweetheart. All is well right now with the world except that I’m old, and I keep forgetting that. God, I feel so old. My body’s hurting. Then I think, “Oh yeah. You are old. That’s why.” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I shouldn’t bring up the birthday in April?
Michael Learned: Oh, I hate it! That’s horrible. But I should be grateful I’m still alive. I come from strong New England stock.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That reminds me that we always talk about that book you’re going to write about your family, or is it that series you’re going to pitch?
Michael Learned: It would make a good series. What I have are odds and ends, so if I ever get back to writing, it would be a patchwork quilt. I’m not good at writing, “I was born on April 9, 1939. I was a cute little baby.” I’m not good at that. I’m good at writing about an event or something whimsical or funny. Every now and then, something turns out pretty well. But to write a life story by yourself is really daunting. Who cares really? My kids care, I suppose, but they already know.
I’ve read some books that are really well written. They stand on their own and others are, “Then I slept with him, then I got this part and did that.” I don’t want to write a resume if I’m going to write a book. I hope I’ll get back into it just for my sake to get something down on paper to leave my kids. I want to write a story like Earl Hamner did … about my family.
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