‘The Waltons’: Mary Elizabeth McDonough Battled Body Issues, Received Support from John Ritter

by Jennifer Shea

Mary Elizabeth McDonough, who played Erin on “The Waltons,” had been suffering in silence for a long time before fellow actor John Ritter finally confronted her.

Mary Elizabeth McDonough Develops Body Issues

McDonough had heard a remark about her weight on set, and the actress – who first appeared on “The Waltons” at age 11 – did not respond well to the suggestion that she was fat, per Showbiz Cheat Sheet.

She began a regimen of crash diets and starvation bouts to try to cope with the insult. Rather than developing a healthy body image, McDonough chased the goal of a perfect figure that would satisfy whomever had called her fat.

“The message to me became this pressure to be perfect and to look perfect and to act perfect and to not make any mistakes, and that took its toll on me,” she said on “Oprah” in 2015. “When I was 15 I had an ulcer, my hair started to fall out, I had these rashes on my head, and I remember my parents took me to the doctor.”

But her parents didn’t know about the “fat” comment, and they told the doctor everything was fine.

“The doctor said, ‘Well, is she under any pressure?’ And my parents said, ‘No, she’s the luckiest girl in the world — Are you kidding me?’” McDonough recalled.

John Ritter Saves the Day

McDonough said her struggle was particularly acute because she felt her role as Erin was on the line. 

“Erin was supposed to be the pretty one, so there was a lot of pressure for me to look a certain way and weigh a certain amount,” McDonough said on “Loose Women,” according to The Daily Mail.

But then Ritter came along. The actor landed a recurring role on the show in 1972 as Reverend Matthew Fordwick. And he sensed that something was wrong with McDonough.

Ritter asked McDonough over and over if she was all right. She told him “I’m fine,” but he wasn’t buying it.

“He said, ‘No, no, I want you to start doing a journal,’” McDonough said. “And that night I started journaling and it saved my life.” 

Ritter passed away abruptly in 2003 at age 54. He died of a dissection of the aorta, per People magazine. That is a flaw in the heart’s main artery.

“Everybody loved John Ritter. Everybody loved working with him,” his assistant Susan Wilcox told the Associated Press. “Whatever set he was working on, he made it a very fun place.”