‘The Waltons’: Mary Elizabeth McDonough Claimed John Ritter Saved Her Life with On-Set Advice

by Suzanne Halliburton

The Waltons middle-daughter Mary Elizabeth McDonough wasn’t OK when she portrayed Erin on the hit family drama. But it took John Ritter, who had a part-time part, to push her in the right direction.

McDonough even credits Ritter with saving her life.

McDonough was only 10 when she landed the role of Erin for the holiday TV movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. That was back in 1971. CBS liked the ratings of the movie, which was set in the Great Depression. And network executives tapped Earl Hamner to create a drama series.

From afar, McDonough’s life seemed perfect. But she was stressed as she matured, mentally and physically, in front of millions of viewers watching her via their TV screens. Anxiety manifested in all sorts of physical symptoms.

She described them in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

“Erin, my character, was supposed to be ‘the pretty one,’” McDonough said. “So 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. 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. And 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 Said Waltons Wardrobe People Shamed Her

She said she was shamed by the wardrobe people because the clothes they picked for her no longer fit. McDonough was a teen-ager going through puberty. The changes in her physical appearance were natural, not anything she could thwart permanently with a diet.

However, McDonough tried. She described severe dieting, then binging. They’re classic symptoms of an eating disorder.

“And I wasn’t fat,” McDonough told Winfrey. “I was just maturing. And nobody said, ‘Hey, you’re normal. You’re OK.’”

Enter John Ritter. He played Matthew Fordwick, a preacher fresh out of Bible college who took over the church on Waltons Mountain. Although the part only was a recurring one, it represented Ritter’s first significant role in Hollywood. Ritter acted almost like a minister when he talked to McDonough. He noticed something was bothering the teen-ager. He asked her what was wrong.

Ritter Suggested Keeping a Journal

Ritter suggested McDonough write down her thoughts in a journal. She said maintaining it saved her life.

She told Winfrey: “I have a picture of a self-portrait that I drew of myself and I referred to myself as ‘hog body.’ And so what was a horrible process for me to go through became the work I do today.”

Ritter left the show. Writers had him join the military at the start of World War II. He soon starred in Three’s Company. Tragically, Ritter died in 2003 of a heart condition.

McDonough now is 59. She said she considers herself a women’s activist, focusing on body image. Eating disorders didn’t receive a lot of attention when McDonough was a child actor. But they’ve been recognized since then. Studies show almost 1 in 10 Americans will suffer an eating disorder during their lifetime.

McDonough also serves as a life coach. And she writes books. She’s published three of them: Lessons from the Mountain, What I Learned From Erin Walton; One Year and Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane. That book evolved into a Christmas movie on Hallmark.

Ritter’s suggestion truly impacted her life.