Earl Hamner created “The Waltons,” which was based on his 1963 novel “Spencer’s Mountain” about his own family. One benefit was it gave him special insight into the show’s characters. And as he explained in this 2003 interview, why it was Michael Learned sometimes had trouble with her role as family matriarch Olivia Walton.
Too Beautiful, Too Perfect
The first issue with Michael Learned’s casting on “The Waltons”? She was “too beautiful.” Hamner explained, “She was and is so beautiful, we had to play down her beauty. … She’s such a beautiful woman it’s almost unreal. … But we brought her beauty down by dressing her in dowdy, cold costumes.”
The other issue for Learned was the character of Olivia Walton, based on Hamner’s mother. “Michael was very aware of the fact,” Hamner said, “that she would be held up as a model for women and she didn’t want to appear so perfect that a woman couldn’t measure up in her own way. So she would occasionally say to me, ‘Was your mother really like this?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, Michael, she was that patient,’ and she’d say, ‘She’s practically inhuman. Let’s humanize her.'”
Another bone of contention was that Olivia spent many of her episodes primarily pouring coffee for other family members. After Learned complained to Hamner, he wrote subsequent scripts so father John Walton Sr., played by Ralph Waite, poured coffee for everyone.
Learned definitely overcame any issues she had with the role of Olivia. During her seven seasons on the show, she received nominations for an Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Drama six times, winning three.
Want to learn more about Learned’s casting in “The Waltons”? Check out this interview from 2014.
Life After ‘The Waltons’
Like many of the cast on “The Waltons,” Learned struggled to find success on her own terms after the series ended. She won another Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 1982 for “Nurse,” but the show was canceled after two seasons. Film roles have been infrequent, and most of her subsequent television work has been guest appearances.
Still, if you’re known mainly for one role, you could do a lot worse than Olivia Walton.