On This Day: ‘The Waltons’ Makes Television Debut in 1972

by Taylor Cunningham

On this day in 1972, Earl Hamner Jr. brought the wholesome story of a depression-era Virginia family to primetime television with The Waltons. And in turn, he created a legacy that has lasted for 5 decades.

The series, which ran from 1972 to 1981, began with a book that Hamner Jr. penned titled Spencer’s Mountain. In the pages, he wrote a fictional tale loosely based on his own experiences growing up in Schuyler, VA, during the Great Depression. That story then turned into a movie before becoming a weekly tradition.

Interestingly, the cast and crew never expected The Waltons to last more than a season. When it debuted, it competed against trend-setting series like The Mod Squad, which showed that audiences were enjoying more contemporary content. But they took a chance and hoped it would stick.

“No of us really knew what to expect,” Richard Thomas, who played the oldest son John-Boy, said in a 2021 interview with Forbes’ Marc Berman“But with only three networks at the time and no cable or streaming services, I guess there was a greater chance to find an audience. To my knowledge, there had never been an ensemble drama that focused on a family.”

As history has proven, the classic TV show outlived its meager expectations. Not only did The Waltons remain on air for nine seasons, which was uncommon for the time, but it also earned 13 Primetime Emmys, and it spawned seven TV movies, with an eighth, The Waltons’ Thanksgiving, dropping this fall.

‘The Waltons’ Continues its Legacy With a New Movie Premiering This Fall

As Rev. Matt Curry, a 59-year-old Presbyterian pastor in Owensboro, Kentucky, told the Associative Press, The Waltons’ success made perfect sense. People tuning in had actually lived through the depression, so the stories resonated with them.

“The Depression was the seminal time of their lives — the time that was about family and survival and making it through,” he said. “My dad used to talk about how his dad would go work out of town and send $5 a week to feed and clothe the family.”

And the fact the audiences are still craving the story today shows just how timeless Hamner Jr.’s story is. There was never a generation that didn’t enjoy the show. Members of the original cast continued the franchise through the late 1990s. And the CW and a new cast picked it back up with The Waltons: Homecoming, a retelling of the very first movie, in 2021.

Of course, today’s fans are far removed from the 1929 stock market crash. So what keeps them coming back isn’t quite as clear. But Thomas, who has taken over for Hamner Jr. as the iconic narrator, believes it has something to do with the powerful messages and the love put into all of the 212 episodes.

“To have that kind of longevity and then have it mean enough for people to want to do a new version of it — I’m not sure exactly why,” he said. “I know it affected a lot of people’s lives. But I think primarily Earl Hamner’s writing was just so great and the cast loved each other so much and we were so committed.”