‘The Waltons’: How the Grandparents Health in the Show Mirrored Real Life Issues

by Matthew Wilson
Photo credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

Sometimes real-life events affect art. “The Waltons” had to make changes to their storylines that reflected real-life issues with two of its senior actors. Actor Ellen Corby and Will Geer played Grandma Esther Walton and Grandpa Zebulon Tyler Walton on the show.

But both of their times on the show were impacted by health problems behind the scenes. Production decided to write some of these health scares into the show as well. In Geer’s case, he starred on the show for six seasons as the affable grandfather. His character often joked that he was going to live to be a hundred on the show.

The character experienced a heart attack in the show after years of bad dieting and his wife worried about his heart health. It was meant to be a wake-up call for the character. But production faced the difficult decision of killing off Geer’s Grandpa after the actor passed away off-screen. Geer died after Season Six from respiratory failure.

The first episode of Season Seven reflected Geer’s real-life passing. Geer’s character experienced a second heart attack while planting. The family buried him on the mountain with a headstone, a simple burial for the farmer. But “The Waltons” kept Geer’s spirit alive on set by frequently mentioning the character throughout the rest of its run. Grandpa lived on in the stories that the other characters told about him.

Ellen Corby Has a Stroke on ‘The Waltons’

Meanwhile, Will Geer’s “The Waltons” co-star Ellen Corby had her own health scare on the set. In 1977, Corby experienced a stroke while filming. Geer was actually the one that found her and helped her get medical assistance. Due to the stroke, Corby’s role in the series was reduced. The stroke made it difficult for her to speak, with other characters conveying her feelings for the audience.

Corby disappeared for the latter half of Season five and returned only sporadically in Season Six. The actor returned full time in Season Seven, experiencing the death of her on-screen husband. But she was forced to leave again in Season Eight due to her health.

The actor ended up also appearing in five of the show’s reunion specials. In 1999, Corby passed away at the age of 87. Meanwhile, the last special for “The Waltons” referred to Corby’s character passing away herself at some point in the future. Both Geer and Corby played an important role in the show’s success and its legacy.