‘The Waltons’: Michael Learned Revealed She and Costar Ralph Waite Were in Love Off-Screen

by Suzanne Halliburton

“The Waltons” told the story about a big, loving, sometimes messy, extended family. The entertainment on the show always was G-rated.

But behind the scenes, Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, who played John and Olivia Walton, almost became an item in real life. But they decided that if they continued with their relationship, it could reflect poorly on the show.

Learned, who won three Emmys playing Olivia Walton, opened up in an interview two years ago to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Ralph Waite.

“We had a deep love for each other,” Learned told the Daily Mail. “That we would have ruined if we had taken it that extra step. And we didn’t.”

Learned said the two were in love. But they went out on only one date. Learned, 81, was married four times. She and her first husband, actor Peter Donal, were divorced in 1972. That coincided with the first season of “The Waltons”.

Meanwhile, Ralph Waite, had been divorced for six years before the start of the show. He didn’t marry again until 1977. Waite died Feb. 13, 2014. He was 85.

Learned said in the interview, “what Ralph and I had was something that came across on screen.”

On Screen, Olivia and John Were Parents to 7 Kids on The Waltons

On screen, the two were parents of seven children. They lived on Walton’s Mountain in rural Virginia. The series, which was loosely based on the life of show creator Earl Hamner, unfolded during the Great Depression into World War II.

The series started with a Christmas movie that introduced the family to TV viewers in December 1971. It ran as a weekly series for nine years. There were then six more TV movies.

Ralph Waite’s first major role was on “The Waltons”. He came to acting relatively late in life. Waite was 39 when he landed a part in “Cool Hand Luke.” Waite also was in the cast of the Jack Nicholson movie “Five Easy Pieces.”

Waite took a chance when he accepted the role of John Walton. The former Marine, social worker and minister, could stay with movies or take the TV route. However, starring on “The Waltons” defined his career.

For Michael Learned, her first significant acting role was Olivia Walton. She left the series after seven seasons. Learned made guest appearances on the show after her departure. She also appeared in four of the six movies after the network canceled “The Waltons”.

She won another Emmy in 1982 for outstanding actress for her role in the drama, Nurses.

Michael Learned said she and Ralph Waite were life-time friends. She said the two knew they made the right decision to not pursue a relationship.

‘And I think that’s why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will,” she said. “And I miss him terribly. His wife is a very good friend.”