‘The Waltons’: Michael Learned Wasn’t First Choice For Olivia Walton, Here’s Who Was

by Madison Miller

Michael Learned and Ralph Waite played the mother and father figures on the popular 1970s sitcom, “The Waltons.”

Both were on the show for the majority of the show’s time on television. However, Learned wasn’t even the casting producers’ first choice to play Olivia Walton.

Learned Was the Backup Plan on ‘The Waltons’

According to Fame 10, Patricia Neal first was given the role of Olivia Walton on “The Waltons.” At the time, Patricia Neal had been dealing with serious health issues and was replaced by Michael Learned. Producers were unsure if she’d be able to take on the long-term role.

Ralph Waite played John Walton Sr. although producers were looking to cast Henry Fonda instead. Fonda was the lead in the 1963 film and producers thought it was best to have him continue as the show’s father-figure.

“What do you want me for? The kid is the star! The whole family is the star! You don’t need me,” Fonda said.

Patricia Neal was a well-known film actress when “The Waltons” had originally given her the role of Olivia Walton. She had starred in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “Hud.”

Neal had originally starred in the television film “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” in 1971. This is what would eventually inspire “The Waltons” to be made as a television series.

According to The Guardian, Patricia Neal had survived a series of strokes in 1965 when she was only 39. At the time, her health had been well-documented as she had to learn to talk and walk again. In 1991, a film with Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde played Neal and her husband Roald Dahl.

However, her health problem may have kept her from getting the role in “The Waltons,” but it certainly didn’t stop her career acting. She would go on to earn another Oscar nomination and three Emmy nominations. She also created the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Centre in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Michael Learned would go on with her own successful career in “The Waltons” as well as other television programs.

Michael Learned as Olivia Walton

While she was playing Olivia Walton, Learned earned an Emmy award for her acting.

Despite the show’s success and her own personal achievements, Michael Learned ended up leaving “The Waltons” in 1979.

“There’s been times when I’ve regretted it only in that it probably would have been better to complete the whole show. But frankly, when John-Boy came back with a new face and a new voice, it was like something happened. I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Learned said in an interview, according to Distractify.

She had said she was bored with the direction of the show and her role. By the end, her contribution had been dwindling. Her decision to leave earlier than anticipated caused television executives to go into a frenzy. She had received outraged messages and a number of petitions from one individual fan as well.

At some point, all the fuss wasn’t even flattering. Her abrupt disappearance on the show was resolved by saying Olivia Walton had tuberculosis and was in a sanatorium in Arizona.

After “The Waltons” Learned was in “Nurse,” “All My Children,” “One Life to Live,” and “Scrubs,” amongst other small roles.