‘The Waltons’: Michael Learned Was Billed in Specific Way to Avoid Awkwardness

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Michael Learned acknowledges she has an unusual name. And she opted not to change it when she got her first big show-business break as Olivia, the matriarch on The Waltons.

The 81-year-old always will be Michael. She doesn’t even have a middle name. Why is that? Blame her parents, Bruce and Betti Learned, and their eccentric choices in first names for their family of daughters.

Michael Learned always tells reporters she never asked her parents why they gave her a masculine first name. She was the firstborn in the family. Bruce and Betti were the proud parents of six daughters.

Most of Michael’s sisters had unique names: Gretl, Susan, Sabra, Dorit and Philippa. Her father and grandfather had been diplomats, and Michael Learned even lived in Austria and went to school in England.

When Michael Learned earned the role of Olivia, the mother on The Waltons, she kept her real name. But creators of The Waltons viewed this as a potential problem. American audiences didn’t know who she was. Producer Lee Rich first saw Learned in the theater. She was starring in Private Lies, a comedy from playwright Noel Coward.

On The Waltons, Michael Learned Was a Miss

So in the opening credits of The Waltons, she was called “Miss Michael Learned” It was 1972, after all.

Technically, Michael Learned wasn’t a Miss for most of her Waltons career. She and her first husband divorced in 1972. And she remarried in 1974.

And here’s another Michael Learned fun fact. She guest-starred in the show Gunsmoke and portrayed a widow in an episode. Marshal Matt Dillon, who had lost his memory, fell in love with her. What was her character’s name? Just call her Mike.

Michael Learned said that her father once told her that if she’d been a boy, he would’ve named her Caleb. So she named her first child, Caleb. He’s a boy. Learned has been married four times, he first at age 17. She had three children, all by her first husband, Peter Donat.

Her greatest problem at the start of The Waltons wasn’t confusion of her first name. Rather, Michael Learned was an alcoholic. She said she was hungover when she auditioned for Olivia. Ralph Waite, who played her husband, encouraged her to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with him. She said she stopped drinking in 1977.

Michael Learned won four Emmys for best actress in a drama, including three for playing Olivia Walton. A masculine-sounding surname never hurt her career. Eventually, The Waltons dropped the Miss.

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