‘The Waltons’: How a New Character Was Introduced in ‘The Empty Nest’ Episode

by Keeli Parkey
Photo: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images

Occasionally – and sadly – an actor who is appearing in a television show passes away unexpectedly. Not only does this personally impact the cast of that show, it also leaves showrunners with the problem of filling the space left vacant by the death. This took place on “The Waltons” before the drama’s seventh season.

Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen Walton, on the beloved family show shared details about this sad situation in a recent video. The actress has been sharing details about the show via her YouTube channel.

“I’m back with another segment of behind the scenes of ‘The Waltons.’ This time I’m talking about the episode from season seven, ‘The Empty Nest’ …” Norton said in a video posted on April 29, 2021. According to IMDB.com, “The Empty Nest” is the first episode of the seventh season of “The Waltons.” It aired on Sept. 21, 1978.

During this episode, Norton said, viewers learn that Mrs. Flossie Brimmer had passed away. Nora Marlowe, the actress who brought Mrs. Brimmer to life on the show, had died on Dec. 31, 1977. She was 62 years old.

“… I thought it was very fitting that (Mrs. Brimmer) was also mentioned because she was a wonderful part of the series for so many seasons and that was also quite a blow to us,” Norton also said.

Mrs. Brimmer’s passing left her boarding house without someone to run it. So, the showrunners of “The Waltons” decided a new individual was needed to take over.

Zuleika Dunbar Joins Show During Seventh Season

“With the passing of Mrs. Brimmer, the boarding house that she ran is now vacant,” Judy Norton recalled. “And, we introduce a new character – Zuleika Dunbar, who has now taken over the boarding house and is going to be letting rooms.”

Actress Pearl Shear was given the role of Zuleika Dunbar. She is weaved into this episode of “The Waltons” thanks to Jim-Bob Walton.

“Jim-Bob has acquired an old jukebox, which doesn’t work,” Norton said. “And, in his mechanical fashion, gets it working again. And ultimately, convinces Mrs. Dunbar that it belongs in her boarding house. I love the subplot about the jukebox and Jim Bob fixing it.”

Nora Marlowe Wasn’t the Only Cast Member on ‘The Waltons’ Who Passed Away Between Seasons

The time leading up to season seven of “The Waltons” was a sad time for its cast. Not only had they lost Nora Marlowe, but actor Will Geer also passed away. Geer played the beloved Grandpa Walton on the show.

Judy Norton also described “The Empty Nest” episode as “the episode that paid tribute to Will Geer …”

“It was 1941, six months after grandpa passed,” she also recalled. “In real life, Will Geer passed away in between season six and season seven, coming as a complete shock to all of us. We didn’t know he was ill. It was quite a devastating loss.”