Michael Learned Interview: "The Waltons" Star Honored with Oscar Icon Award for Television
Image attributed to Michael Learned
Michael Learned is known for her role as Olivia Walton in The Waltons, a TV series created by Earl Hamner, Jr., based on his book Spencer’s Mountainand a 1963 film of the same name, about a family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II. The show also stars Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, Ellen Corby, Will Geer, Judy Norton, Jon Walmsley, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, Eric Scott, David W. Harper and Kami Cotler.
Learned also starred as the hospital drama Nurse, which ran on CBS during the 1980-1981 and 1981-1982 seasons and made many guest appearances on other series. Her theatre credits include Mothers and Sons, Love Letters, The Outgoing Tide, Southern Comforts, Looking for Normal and Driving Miss Daisy. Learned will be honored with the Icon Award for television during the Oscar pre-show on February 24, 2019.
"You don’t become an icon until you’re old. I don’t even know what the word means. I have to look it up because if I have to make an acceptance speech, I want to be able to define what the word means. But whatever it is, it’s an honor."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael, congratulations on receiving the Icon Award for Television!
Michael Learned: Thank you. It’s very nice. More than lovely.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever think that when you did that first scene as Olivia Walton, you would one day become an icon?
Michael Learned. No. I was young then. You don’t become an icon until you’re old. I don’t even know what the word means. I have to look it up because if I have to make an acceptance speech, I want to be able to define what the word means. But whatever it is, it’s an honor.
Awards are always an honor, and it’s always nice. But quite honestly, it’s not even a blip on the radar screen of life. But I’m always honored, and I don’t take it very seriously. Well, it’s not an Oscar. That would be a deeper honor, but of course, nobody asked me to do movies. So I’ll never get an Oscar. Tonys and Oscars say you’re the best at your craft. The peers have voted, and that really is an honor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever been nominated for a Tony Award?
Michael Learned: No. That would mean the world to me because I am such a theater buff. I haven’t done enough Broadway. I’ve done some but not enough, I think.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe you tie with Tyne Daly for the most Emmy wins in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
Michael Learned: She’s a wonderful actress. I loved Cagney & Lacey.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes. That was a groundbreaking television show.
Michael Learned: For women.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Waltons still have fans all over the world, which is just phenomenal. The serieswas often described as wholesome family entertainment, but the subject matter was actually often mature and controversial tackling racism, spousal abuse, ageism, even the horrors of the Hindenburg explosion.
Michael Learned: Thank you for that. Thank you because I think Earl (Hamner) dealt with some very real issues. He dealt with segregation. He dealt with the Dust Bowl. He dealt with the Depression. He dealt with a lot of issues that were really a part of Americana of early life. I remember the one episode where we fall in love with a little African-American boy who wants to live with us, and he can’t because in those days, it wasn’tdone.
So John Walton has to take him over to Verdie Grant’s place, and there’s a scene where John walks away, and he’s standing looking after him. Ralph doesn’t look back, which I think is the height of wonderful acting. He kept it from being sentimental by not looking back, but you could see just from the way he was walking that he was in terrible pain having to do what he did. So it was the subtle little things like that that Earl injected into that show that I think were very important.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Earl Hamner put the spotlight on relevant news stories of the time, and some of those issues are still relevant today. Did he allow the actors input into character storylines?
Michael Learned: Earl was a decent man with a great sense of humor. I think we put him through the ringer a lot of times because we’d say, “My character wouldn’t do that!” We did make some useful suggestions at times because Earl loved his family, and he didn’t want to offend anybody because that’s the kind of man he was. So there were times when we would say, “Earl, this is getting too sticky. You’ve got to toughen it up a little bit. You’ve got to have Olivia make a mistake and punish the wrong child or something a little more human.” He would go along with that.
I said, “Earl, didn’t your mother ever do anything wrong ever?” You know, my character was based on his mother. He said, “No.” (laughs). I said, “Well, we’ve got to have some time where Olivia is overreacting or underreacting or not perfect because no mother’s perfect." I think that was part of the charm of the show, that we weren’t perfect at least not in the first two years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was also understood that John Walton was the head of the household, but he would also acquiesce at times to his wife and to the children. And Olivia was actually a feminist.
Michael Learned: I think so, too, and I love Earl for doing that. She joined the women’s lib movement toward the end of my part in the show. She worked for the Red Cross, and she became more than just a housewife. But she and John were partners, and I think in so many marriages even today, people are not partners. John and Olivia were just good loving partners. I mean, you’re in it together. You have each other’s backs, and that’s what their relationship was. If she needed something, he was there for her, and if he needed something, she was there for him.
It was a wonderful relationship, and Ralph and I were so lucky that we had such real chemistry with each other. Can you imagine showing up every day and doing a love scene with somebody you can’t stand? (laughs) I couldn’t do it. We had a fight once. We had a quarrel over something, and I remember we were about to do a scene. I went pounding on his door, and I said, “Ralph, you have to come out! We have to make up because I can’t do the scene if I’m still angry with you.” We became very close in life as well as we were on the set. But never slept together. Never ever ever.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Never? (laughs)
Michael Learned: No. Only on the set. And I think if we ever had, it might’ve really been a big mistake. Actors sometimes fall into their roles, and they think they’re in love. Then they get out of love, and suddenly nobody wants to talk to anybody anymore. So we were very smart about that because we really loved each other.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What inspired you in the beginning to become an actor?
Michael Learned: I was going to a ballet school in England, a boarding school. I wanted to be a dancer, and they had a competition every year of dance and/or drama. I inadvertently won the drama competition. One of the teachers took me aside and quickly said, “Michael, you know, you’re not really a good dancer, so why don’t you think about becoming a special drama student?” So I did.
I became a special drama student which meant that I had drama classes every day plus a dance class. The dancers would have two dance classes every day. So I would have a dance class in the morning and a drama class after that, and then we had academics in the afternoon. It was wonderful. It was great training. I was a very troubled adolescent as most adolescents are, and for me, it was a wonderful place to put a lot of my feelings that I didn’t know how to express in life or that I wasn’t allowed to express in life. So it was a great gift.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned your love for the theater. You’ve been starring as Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy for a number of years.
Michael Learned: Yes. I started out too young to play the part, and I think I’m getting too old to play the part now. So it’s been a while (laughs). Lance (Nichols) and I started it years ago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What continues to interest you in the role pf Daisy?
Michael Learned: I think it’s a very important play and sometimes underrated as kind of a light piece. But it’s really about unconscious bias. It’s very subtle. Well, I mean, sometimes not quite so subtle but the fact that she is biased, and she doesn’t know it. Through the love of this man Hoke and the love story between the two of them, Daisy learns about her unconscious bias, and he also has a bias. That’s something people often miss because he talks about the GD trash down there.
So I think what Alfred (Uhry), the playwright, is trying to say is we all have biases somewhere about something, and whatever it is, we need to know it so that we can manage it and work through it. You know what I mean? So I think it’s an important play, and I find new things in it every time I do it. I never get tired of it. Never. Ever. That, to me, is what a classic play is about. You find new nuances, new discoveries, new wonderful things. Every time I rehearse it, I feel like I get deeper into the part. It’s never something that’s off the cuff for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Racism is certainly a timely topic today.
Michael Learned: Well, I think it’s a good thing that it’s a current topic. I think we need to take a good hard look at what’s happening to our country and what has happened in the past and what we haven’t learned from the past. It’s painful. I mean, it’s very painful. I’ve had an unpleasant experience here at the condo, you know. There’s so much anger everywhere, including me. I’m not alone in that. I’m not saying others are angry, and I don’t have my own. I do. I have my own issues, but we need to be aware. The more aware we can be, the more we can try to manage it. That’s what happens to Daisy in the play. She becomes aware.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is it about performing in the theater that appeals to you?
Michael Learned: To me, it’s almost a spiritual experience when you know that an audience is totally engaged in the play and in the moment and you are, too. It’s almost like a spiritual movement just like you both transcend the fact that it’s make believe. Sometimes the hair rises on the back of my head when the theater gets really silent, and I know people are really in it.
You just can’t get that in television and movies because really it’s technical, and you never get to go from A to Z. You never get to go from A to Z in the theater. If you’re doing a play, you’ve got to do the whole thing. In movies and TV, it’s all fragmented. You may shoot the last scene first or the rape scene with someone you’ve never met before. You walk in, you get your clothes off and climb into bed, and there you are. And it’s okay. It’s just different. It’s wonderful. The first laugh you get is like a Christmas present. When they cry, it’s like a Christmas present.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any emotion other than throwing tomatoes, right? (laughs)
Michael Learned: Yes. And I’ve had that, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Really?
Michael Learned: Not literally but figuratively.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Hecklers?
Michael Learned: Yeah. That happened way early in my career. There was one sailor who came to see our show on Broadway. I was with my first husband. There was nobody in the audience but this sailor, and he was drunk. He was bored because it was a Greek classic (laughs). Things like that happen in the theater. Kids throw popcorn when you’re doing a matinee. Stuff like that happens. But with Driving Miss Daisy, it’s usually adult, and they’re very respectful of the play. They love to see this woman take her journey, they take the journey with her, and Hoke does the driving.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The last time we spoke, which was in 2010, you told me you were thinking about or were in the process of writing a book. How’s that going?
Michael Learned: I write great pages in the shower, and then I sit in front of the computer and can’t think of a word. But I have a lot of stuff written. I think now I need an editor who needs to say what to write about, what should go where and what should be filled in. At the moment, what I have is a bunch of essays or patches for a patchwork quilt, you know? It all needs to be sewn together somehow. But I’m getting the itch to start writing again.
It seems so egotistical to write a memoir, but at the same time, I have led a very interesting life, and I have known some very interesting people. I think it’s time now to write a little bit about my career and the people I’ve worked with. I’ve worked with Chris Plummer, Paul Scofield, Richard Chamberlain, Hal Linden, Tom Bosley. I think people would be interested in hearing about them. I just need to make myself sit down and do it.
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