‘The Waltons’: Mary Ellen Actress Said Producers ‘Pleaded’ People to Watch Show in Early Days

by Joe Rutland

“The Waltons” is an endearing, family-friendly show which still lives on in reruns. But it took a herculean push by producers to get viewers.

Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen on the CBS classic family drama, said that the show’s producers were desperate. The show, created by Earl Hamner, was close to being canceled, she said in an interview with Fox News.

“It was really the producers who went out and created a grassroots campaign, like taking out ads and doing interviews in the heartland, in Middle America, where we really found our audience,” Norton said.

“Just really kind of pleading with people to watch the show and embrace it,” she added. “And that was really the audience that formed the core… Those are our really loyal fans that continue to watch the show in reruns.”

‘The Waltons’ Picks Up Fans Around Its Family Values

While “The Waltons” premiered poorly, it was quickly embraced by audiences for its family values.

“It took the whole season to find our audience and get them onboard,” said the 60-year-old. “People then loved it and stayed loyal for nine years. In today’s world, a show might get maybe 3-6 episodes to test it.

“And it’s even harder now because there’s so much competition today. A show could be gone before you even knew it existed. So we were in a very fortunate time in television where we were given that opportunity to stick around long enough for an audience to find us.”

The show itself came out of a CBS movie called “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” that starred actors Andrew Duggan and Patricia Neal in the parental roles in 1971.

Because the TV movie was well-received, that led to creating “The Waltons” yet having Ralph Waite and Michael Learned take over the parent roles. Richard Thomas, who played John-Boy Walton, appeared in both the TV movie and long-running series.

Henry Fonda Almost Became John Walton on ‘TheWaltons’

Speaking of Ralph Waite, his role of John Walton was actually pitched to an Academy Award-winning actor with quite a resume’ to his career.

Henry Fonda, who starred in movies like “12 Angry Men” and “Mister Roberts” among many others, was asked to look at the show.

How did this happen? Well, they were looking for someone to successfully fill that fatherly role. Fonda happened to look a bit fatherly by the time the series was looking to fill out its cast in 1972.

It took Lee Rich, who was the showrunner for “The Waltons,” to have a conversation with Fonda. The famous actor looked into playing the role yet ended up believing it wasn’t a good fit.

“We showed the pilot to Henry Fonda,” Rich said. “And afterward he turned around to me and said: ‘What do you want me for? The family is the star. You don’t need me.’”

Therefore, in steps Waite to fill the father role’s shoes and gain notoriety on weekly television.