‘The Waltons’ Star Michael Learned Breaks Down Her Character’s Diagnosis with Polio

by Katie Maloney

Michael Learned still recognizes the significance of Olivia Walton’s polio diagnosis on The Waltons.

Although The Waltons depicted a big family with lots of love, the show never shied away from the realities of life. The episode titled “An Easter Story” is a perfect example of that. During the episode, Olivia Walton is diagnosed with polio. The doctors say that she will be crippled from the disease and never walk again. TV Guide ranked the episode on its list of best television episodes. During a recent interview, Michael Learned, who played Olivia Walton on The Waltons, talked about the episode.

“I grew up when you weren’t allowed to swim in pools during the polio season,” said Learned. “And my father also had spinal meningitis. So, he had one leg shorter than the other, so it was very real for me.”

Michael Learned Complained About Her Character Until She Got to Do This Episode of ‘The Waltons’

Michael Learned added that the episode came at a perfect time because she used to feel that her character never really got a lot of juicy scenes on the show.

“I was always complaining that all I did was pour coffee,” said Learned. “I was really a pain in the a**. He [the show’s creator] came in and said, ‘We have this great show for you. You’re going to get polio and you’re going to be crippled. And then we have a scene on Walton Mountain and the sun is coming out over the horizon and you get out of your wheelchair and walk!’ I said, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ It seemed very corny to me but I think the show really worked. And it was really a trip to do it.”

The episode definitely worked. To this day the episode is considered one of the most memorable in the history of The Waltons. It’s even more iconic now because, as Learned and the other cast members agreed, the episode mirrors the experiences and fear that people experienced this past year during the pandemic.

“And it’s out there. I look out the window and the sun is shining, the palm trees are swaying and you think, ‘There’s something out there. And I can’t see it. I can’t touch it, I can’t feel it or smell it. But it’s out there and it’s waiting to get me. It’s a scary time,” said Learned.

Watch Michael Learned talk about the episode of The Waltons starting at the 50 minute mark.