‘The Waltons’ Actor Explained Why it Was ‘Very Awkward’ to Work with Richard Thomas’ Replacement

by Katie Maloney

What would you do if someone came in and replaced one of your kids with an entirely different person? You would probably freak out, and rightfully so! Well, actress Michael Learned, who played Olivia Walton on “The Waltons”, had a similar reaction when the show replaced her onscreen son John-Boy.

Actor Richard Thomas originally played John-Boy on the show. However, after his fifth season, he decided to leave “The Waltons.” Many fans wondered if he had a falling out with the cast. But there’s never been any evidence of an occurrence like that.

In fact, Thomas returned with a few guest appearances in season six of the show. He also appeared in a slew of 1990s movies adapted from the show. The films include The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion, A Walton Wedding, and A Walton Easter. Additionally, Thomas gushed about his character during an interview in 2016.

“John-Boy was a new kind of male protagonist on television,” said Thomas. “That kind of sensitive, feeling man was about as different as a central male character could be on an hour-long series.” 

Michael Learned Wasn’t A Fan Of The Second John-Boy On ‘The Waltons’

Regardless of why Thomas left the show, he was sorely missed by both fans and his former co-stars. Michael Learned was one of those co-stars. For five whole seasons, Learned grew close to Thomas while playing his onscreen mother. However, the two were separated when Thomas left the show.

Oddly, “The Waltons” creators decided to keep John-Boy’s character on the show and simply replace Richard Thomas with another actor. Actor Robert Wightman replaced Richard Thomas in the role of John-Boy Walton. Wightman played the role beginning with the show’s eighth season in 1979 until the end of the series in 1981.

As the loving onscreen mama she was, Learned wasn’t a fan of the decision. During an interview in 2015, Learned opened up about how she felt “sorry” for the actor who replaced Richard Thomas. She said that it took her a long time before she was able to watch the episodes with the new actor.

“I couldn’t — there were too many memories. But you know, I was recently in Austin doing a play and I happened to catch an episode of the show on the Hallmark Channel with the second John-Boy,” said Learned. “Remember that they replaced Richard Thomas after he left the show? I had never really seen that young man (Robert Wightman). And I think maybe I had done one of two shows with him before I left and it was very awkward. I felt sorry for him on the set and, to be honest. I didn’t feel it was right to have a different John-Boy with a different face and voice. But you know, when I saw that episode I thought it was very good and that he did a nice job!”