For nine seasons and more than 200 episodes, “The Waltons” led millions of American families to gather around the television to watch a new episode’s worth of wholesome unfold. Created by Earl Hamner Jr. and based on his 1961 book “Spencer’s Mountain” (via Goodreads), the show centers around the highs and lows of a typical rural family and their neighbors in the fictional Jefferson County, Virginia, during the Great Depression and World War II.
“The Waltons” debuted on CBS in September 1972. It was a rocky time in U.S history, with the ongoing Vietnam War affecting every aspect of life and the Watergate scandal (via History) still fresh in the minds of American audiences. As such, viewers were no doubt drawn to the escapism promised by this Norman Rockwell-esque picture of family life. The CBS series became such a hit during its run that it won an impressive 13 Emmys and a Peabody Award by the time it wrapped in 1981. So well-known and beloved is “The Waltons” that the show has seeped into the pop culture zeitgeist, with references to and parodies about the series popping up in places like “Family Guy” and a “Geico” commercial.
The cast of “The Waltons” featured a wide range of talent, including fresh-faced actors like Richard Thomas, Mary Beth McDonough, and Eric Scott as well as veteran actors such as Will Geer, Helen Kleeb, and Mary Jackson. Sadly, as with any show that is now 40 years removed from its final season, some key cast members have passed away.
Earl Hamner Jr., the person without whom none of “The Waltons” would have been possible, passed away from bladder cancer at the age of 92 in 2016 (via The New York Times). Not only did Hamner Jr. serve as the series creator, writer, and producer of “The Waltons,” but he also provided the narration for all nine seasons.
In a video interview with the Television Academy Foundation uploaded to YouTube in 2015, Hamner Jr. recounted, “We started looking for a narrator. We auditioned everyone in town who does that work professionally.” At one point, Fielder Cook, the director and writer of the 1971 TV movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” said, “We need someone who sounds as homespun and corny as Earl.” Naturally, it was suggested that Hamner Jr. read a paraphrase. Once finished, the writer knew he landed the job when, to his amazement, he saw that he literally moved Cook to tears.
Outside of “The Waltons,” Hamner Jr. is well known for his eight-episode run on cultural touchstone “The Twilight Zone.” Per his IMDb page, he wrote such iconic episodes as Season 5’s “You Drive” and “The “Bewitchin’ Pool.” His other notable works include writing credits on “Charlotte’s Web” and the television movie “Heidi” in 1968. His impact on the television landscape is still felt to this day.
“The Waltons” being the nostalgic microcosm of an idyllic American family that it is, you, of course, need a warm, loving grandmother to serve as the voice of sass, wit, and wisdom. Ellen Corby, who was in her 60s at the time she debuted as Grandma Walton on “The Waltons,” had quite a resumé before joining the television clan. With her willingness to dispense homespun philosophy to her fictional family as Grandma, she brought a real warmth that resonated with audiences.
Her roles include iconic films such as Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as well as small-screen roles like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Addams Family,” and even a guest spot on the wonderfully campy ’60s “Batman” television series (via IMDb). Additionally, Corby earned an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for her role in 1948’s “I Remember Mama,” which stars Irene Dunne in the titular role of Mama.
The Washington Post reported she died of natural causes at the age of 87 on April 14, 1999. Fittingly, IMDb notes that her last on-screen role was playing Grandma Walton in the 1997 television movie “A Walton Easter,” thus closing out a brilliant career that spanned nearly 70 years and more than 250 roles in film and TV.
Actor Ralph Waite never planned on being an actor, let alone an actor on a popular television show. Originally, he worked as a minister before leaving the church to become an assistant editor of religious books published at Harper & Row, according to The Guardian’s 2014 obituary for the actor.
In his early 30s, Waite discovered acting. Though he didn’t have the kind of pedigree as his fellow co-stars Ellen Corby and Will Geer, he had already made a name for himself starring on Broadway (per Broadway World). Later, he showed up in such memorable films such as “Cool Hand Luke” and “Five Easy Pieces,” as well as a slew of guest television roles on shows including “NCIS,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Days of Our Lives” later in his career (via IMDb).
Of course, in 1972, the actor got the role of a lifetime as John Walton Sr., the head of the Walton household. In February 2014, The Hollywood Reporter was among the first outlets to confirm that Waite had died at age 85. In that same article, actress Michael Learned, who portrayed Waite’s fictional wife Olivia Walton, said, “He was my spiritual husband. We loved each other for over 40 years. He died a working actor at the top of his game. He was a loving mentor to many and a role model to an entire generation. I’m devastated.”