From 1972-1981, “The Waltons” entertained millions with its Depression-era family drama. The show explored relationships between multiple generations of the Walton family. Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen Walton throughout 211 episodes, remembers one particular episode that was a perfect example of this.
In 1976, “The Waltons” was in Season 4 of its nine-season run. Episode 21 of that season saw Mary Ellen Walton clash with her mom and grandma over traditions from the old days. During “The Quilting,” Judy Norton’s Mary Ellen is coming of age. For the first few seasons of the show, Mary Ellen is a child. But at this point, she’s on the cusp of womanhood and has no interest in going about it according to her grandma’s wishes.
The episode puts the perspectives of three Walton generations on display. Michael Learned’s Olivia Walton, Mary Ellen’s mother, understands where both ladies are coming from. At Mary Ellen’s age, it is traditional to celebrate her growth by participating in a quilting activity that signifies her availability for a husband. Her priorities, however, do not include finding a husband. Therefore, she deems the tradition silly.
The episode provided some great opportunities for some emotional moments between characters. Especially between Michael Learned and Judy Norton, as the mother and daughter. In a video she uploaded to her YouTube channel, Norton talked about working with Michael Learned.
“I loved doing the scene with Michael in the attic, with the hope chest and all that that represented. That’s just such a typical example of the beautiful work that Michael created as Olivia. It’s just sweet and does touch on a beautiful tradition. And trying to get Mary Ellen to see it that way, as opposed to just a way to announce that she’s there to be married.”
Michael Learned Left ‘The Waltons’ Before the Show Ended
In 1979, Michael Learned made the decision to leave “The Waltons.” Her departure from the show came as a surprise. Playing Olivia Walton gave her major recognition as an actor. Her performance in the role even won her an Emmy Award.
A handful of things led to her decision. Chief among them was the fact that Richard Thomas, who played fan-favorite character John-Boy, already left “The Waltons.” On top of the fact that Learned was feeling tired of the role, bringing in a new face to play John-Boy was the last straw for her.
“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,” Michael Learned told Fox News in a 2017 interview.
Judy Norton, however, continued playing the role of Mary Ellen Walton until the show’s conclusion in 1981. She doesn’t blame Michael Learned for her decision, however.