The actress who played Olivia Walton on The Waltons really was nothing like her character.
Olivia Walton had seven children and her world didn’t extend much beyond Waltons Mountain in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and beyond.
But Michael Learned, who played Olivia, grew up the daughter of a diplomat in the U.S. State Department. She spent a chunk of her childhood in Europe.
When she was 11, her family moved to Austria and she also went to school in England. Both her father and grandfather were diplomats. She and four of her sisters had unusual names — Gretl, Sabra, Dorit and Philippa. Then, there was sister Susan. Michael was the oldest of the sisters.
The family lived on an idyllic farm in Connecticut, then moved to St. Gilgen, Austria. The girls went to the local schools and learned German. Learned also wanted to be a ballerina, which was why she went to boarding school at The Arts Educational School in Hertfordshire, England. The school eventually became Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. She won the Drama Cup, which piqued her interest in acting.
By age 17, Learned moved back to the United States. She married Peter Donat. The couple had three children by the time Learned was 24. Her family wasn’t as big as The Waltons, but she certainly had personal experience of raising children when she took the role of Olivia for the series in 1972.
But when started The Waltons, Learned also was going through a divorce. Still, Learned raised her three boys and served as a maternal figure for her seven TV children.
Learned’s TV Children on The Waltons Loved Her
Kami Cotler, who played Elizabeth, the youngest child on The Waltons, said everyone would go to Learned because she was a “great listener.”
“Oh gosh. Michael is one of the most sensitive and caring people I know,” Cotler said of her mother on The Waltons. “She was always warm to all of the kids. My own Mom is amazing, but she’s very sensible and grounded. I could go to Michael with more dramatic feelings and she’d be a great listener and support.”
Learned was Olivia for the first seven seasons on The Waltons. She won three Emmys as Outstanding Lead Actress in a drama series. When she left the series, writers explained her absence by giving Olivia tuberculosis. She recovered from the illness at a spa in Arizona. Learned guest-starred on the series until it was canceled, then played Olivia in four of the six Waltons reunion movies.
Learned said she decided to leave The Waltons because she didn’t like the grind of acting on television. She talked about her decision during an interview with the Washington Post in 1979.
“On a television thing, it’s so minute, the moments are so minute,” The Waltons star told the Post. “It’s stop and start, stop and start. In a scene where there’s any real emotion, it’s very hard to dredge that up and then be stopped and then wait for half an hour and then dredge it up again.”
But Learned came back to television, playing Mary Benjamin on Nurses from 1981-82. She earned her fourth Emmy for the role.
Learned is 82 now, but still acting. She’ll play Jeffrey Dahmer’s grandmother on the Netflix series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.