When The Waltons had to make the hard choice to recast John-Boy in 1979, the remaining cast and fans alike had a difficult time accepting the new actor. And for Michael Learned, seeing a new face in Richard Thomas’ place was enough to make her want to leave the show.
While the classic TV series ran for nine seasons, Thomas only appeared in six. In most cases, when an actor makes an exit, the show simply writes them out of the story. However, the situation was a bit different for Thomas.
The Waltons was loosely based on creator Earl Hamner’s childhood, and Thomas’ John-Boy player the younger version of Hamner. In fact, the narrator, who was read by Hamner, was John-Boy as a grown man. So, taking the character out of the mix would ruin the show’s entire premise.
Nonetheless, Richard Thomas decided to leave the show before Hamner was ready to pull the series. So, Hamner made the choice to recast John-Boy. And the way he did it was a bit wild.
In an episode titled The Waiting, John-Boy, who had been missing in action, returns from war with his face covered in bandages. Eventually, the bandages came off. And because of his injuries, John-Boy had an entirely different face. But Michael Learned wasn’t buying it.
“I said, ‘So John-Boy’s coming back from war with bandages around his face,” she said to Television Academy. “So, OK… now he has a different face, but he also has a different voice? I hated it. It’s partly why I left.”
The recastings weren’t the only thing that fueled Learned’s exit. Before Richard Thomas left, she was already considering a change-up. But the odd reframing of John-Boy played a large part in her decision to go.
“I just couldn’t deal with a new John-Boy,” she continued. “I couldn’t handle it. Not that he wasn’t a good actor. I feel sorry for him, actually.”
Michael Learned Hated the ‘Stop and Start’ Filming Style of ‘The Waltons’
In 1979, the year that Michael Learned ultimately retired from her role as Olivia Walton, the actress revealed more about her decision to quit.
As she explained to The Washington Post, she had no issues with the cast or crew. And she also didn’t mind her role. Instead, after seven years of doing the same job, she just burned out. And she also felt that the filming process what hindering her abilities as an actress.
“On a television thing it’s so minute, the moments are so minute,” she shared. “It’s stop and start, stop and start. In a scene where there’s any real emotion, it’s very hard to dredge that up and then be stopped and then wait for half an hour and then dredge it up again.”
Learned did, however, come to regret her decision to exit when the series was so close to its finale. But looking back, she knew that she wouldn’t have lasted for the remaining 36 episodes.
I just couldn’t do it anymore…,” she added. “And also, I felt a lot of the times I was sitting around for 14 hours saying, ‘More coffee John.’ The fact is, I was bored.”