For 7 years, Michael Learned played the Walton family matriarch, Olivia Walton, on the classic TV drama The Waltons, which followed a family in rural Virginia through two perilous eras of American history: the Great Depression and World War II. In 1979, Michael Learned decided that she’d had enough of television acting and quit the series.
“On a television thing it’s so minute, the moments are so minute,” Learned explained to The Washington Post. “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.”
With only 36 episodes left in the series, the Walton family was without the sweet and serene Olivia Walton. The family needed a matriarch, however, so Olivia’s cousin, Rose Burton (Peggy Rea), was introduced to fill the gap.
Though Olivia Walton was sorely missed, Peggy Rea took to the role with ease. Rea played the part of matriarch so well, in fact, that fans felt an immediate fondness for the character. And even after the series ended, The Waltons fans continued to express admiration for her.
“I wouldn’t have missed that experience on The Waltons for the world,” Rea explained in a 1982 interview with the United Feature Syndicate. “Even now, complete strangers come up to me on the street and hug me. I was on it for two years, and I couldn’t have been luckier.”
‘The Waltons’ Star Michael Learned Looks Back on Her Role as Olivia Walton
When Michael Learned was approached for a leading role on The Waltons, the actress insisted that she wasn’t right for the part. The producers disagreed, however, and after a brief audition, she earned the role.
Hilariously, even after she got the role, she continued to doubt the series. According to Michael Learned, the success of the series was wholly unexpected.
“It blew me away, actually, the success of the show,” Learned told Entertainment Tonight. “I thought it was corny and it was going to die. When I heard it was going to go, I was going through a divorce, I had three kids, and they were going to pay me $1200 a week. And I thought, ‘I’ve never seen that much money in my life’! It was like God’s hand was on my shoulder. I really feel that.”
Though it took a while for Michael Learned to warm up to The Waltons, the chemistry between herself and Ralph Waite, her on-screen husband, was instantaneous. “I adored him. We adored each other, we were like a married couple who never slept together,” she said with a laugh. “We sort of had a crush on each other for a little while. And then we both looked at each other and went, ‘Nah. We’re not that stupid.'”