“The Waltons” was a show about a wholesome, humble family that Earl Hamner Jr. based off of his real childhood. He wrote himself in the role of John-Boy, played by Richard Thomas; Ralph Waite portrayed his father, and Hamner said once that Waite gave him the greatest gift of all as an actor.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2003, Hamner discussed the cast of “The Waltons.” He began with Ralph Waite’s performance on the show. “Ralph had an innate strength,” Hamner started. “He’s a fine actor and he understood the character of my father.”
The character of John Walton was strong-willed and devoted to his family; he pushed his children to go after their dreams and believed in working hard to achieve what they want in life. Hamner continued, “I once said that actors can give a writer great gifts and that Ralph gave me the greatest gift of all, which was to recreate the real spirit of my father. I was very grateful to Ralph, and he did a beautiful job.”
Richard Thomas Explains What Made ‘The Waltons’ Different
Richard Thomas, who portrayed John-Boy on “The Waltons,” believes firmly that the show differed from its contemporaries. But what really made the popular show stand out from the crowd?
According to Richard Thomas, it’s the “small stories.” The plots are self-contained, and real for the audience. They were presented with hard-working, humble characters when they needed them the most.
“They weren’t superstars, they weren’t wealthy, nobody was an ace cop or a great doctor or a fantastic lawyer or a detective or a cowboy.” The Waltons were working-class and poor, but they loved each other and were loyal to their family.
Additionally, the fact that a rural family was front and center made waves, and audiences loved it. They weren’t the butt of a joke because they were poor and living off the land. Their hard work was celebrated, as were their humble means. The Waltons did what they could with what they had, and they still managed to be happy with it. That’s what audiences needed to see; a poor family that still made time for each other, who weren’t depressed at their situation. Audiences needed a family who had barely anything, who were still happy and thriving.
The people-watching were represented on screen; Richard Thomas says that the audiences in 1972 “were moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers” from the same era as the Waltons. Some of them identified with the kids, some identified with John and Olivia. But that was their era, and they got to see themselves represented in a popular television show, being happy and loving and together.