‘The Waltons’: Michael Learned Was Hungover at Audition, Said Show Saved Her Life

by Suzanne Halliburton
Photo by Con Keyes/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Michael Learned, in hindsight, says playing Olivia, the mother of eight on The Waltons, saved her life.

Years of reflection can open your eyes to your faults. Michael Learned acknowledged she drank too much in the early 1970s. She even was hungover on the day she auditioned for the part of Olivia Walton.

Michael Learned told Fox News about the days leading up to her audition. This was in 2019 and Learned was doing interviews to promote her movie Second Acts.

“I was going through a divorce (and) was drinking too much. And I came down to LA. I was full of fear because I’d been married since I was 17. Suddenly, I’m alone with three teenagers to raise. I don’t know where I got the courage to drive down to LA. I thought, “I’m just going to look at the freeway and learn the freeways in case an audition comes up.”

Learned then described how she lived:

“And I stayed at a crummy little motel for 12 bucks a night. And my agent called and said, “That part is still open. You go see about it.” And I said, “But I don’t look at all like Patricia Neal. I’m 14 years younger than she is…” And he said, “Go.” And so I went and I didn’t read or anything. They just said, “Will you do a test?” And I said, “Sure.”

Creators of The Waltons were juggling most of the cast after the two-hour, made-for-TV movie called The Homecoming: A Christmas Story premiered in December 1971. Well-known actress Patricia Neal played Olivia.

Neal won an Academy Award in 1964 for Best Actress. But the part for the series was open. Directors also were recasting John Sr and the grandfather, among others.

Michael Learned was 32 when she won the role, the first substantial part of her career. On the show, she had seven children. An eighth, Ben’s twin, had died. The story of The Waltons started during the Great Depression and continued through World War II.

Ralph Waite, who played Learned’s TV husband, talked his co-star into going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with him.

“Well, Ralph got me sober,” Learned said. “I said, “I’ll go and be supportive for you.” Because he said, “I’m going to AA.” And I said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. You really need it.” He grabbed me by the shoulders, and he said, “I think you should come.” And I’m like, “Me?”

“But he got me sober. And I’m very grateful to him for that. And we were lovers, not physically, but emotionally and spiritually. We adored each other. We were like a married couple without all the baggage that you get when you’re in a marriage.”

Learned said she stopped drinking in 1977.

Learned is 81 now. She has four Emmys in her trophy case, three of them for playing Olivia Walton. The show changed the trajectory of her life on many levels.

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