For once, the tears at Burbank Studios' Stage 26 were real: Michael Learned, 39, for seven years the loving Mama Olivia on CBS' The Waltons, had taped her last show. The emotional wrap party signaled the latest calamity for creator Earl Hamner's semiautobiographical clan. This time he was losing just about the last bulwark of a closely bound cast whose real-life afflictions—alcoholism, emotional trouble, stroke and even death—had been woven into the weekly scripts and rivaled them in poignancy and drama.
Learned had asked Hamner (who modeled John-Boy after himself) to write her out of the script, and on last week's segment Olivia departed Waltons' Mountain for a tuberculosis sanatorium. But the final show Michael actually shot was aired a week earlier. "I think they felt they could never get my farewell show on film if it was my last," she explained. "There would have been too many tears." The set was misty-eyed anyway as she accepted roses from the boss, candy and clothing from the crew and a necklace with a gold No. 2 from fellow actors. "That was my number on the cast sheet," Learned explained after a touching goodbye speech. Then the phone rang as co-executive producer Lee Rich asked her to drop by. "I'm not going to do it, Lee," declared Learned. "If I come up now I'd agree to come back at half salary."
Like Olivia, Learned needed a rest cure. "I am so exhausted after doing this show 12 hours a day, five days a week for seven years that I need a vacation," she says. "Nobody can understand the pressures of doing an hour-long TV show unless you've done one. Even when you're not on call, you still are working, learning lines, doing appearances, just tense. I couldn't keep it up."
There is talk of continuing the show next fall as Waltons' Mountain with new characters and more emphasis on town life. But the cast worries openly about this season being the finish. The Waltons have so far survived Richard (John-Boy) Thomas' defection in 1977 for the greener side of the Mountain, Will (Grandpa) Geer's death last spring, and Ellen (Grandma) Corby's crippling stroke two years ago. Then rival ABC, which has no mercy or respect, slotted Mork & Mindy opposite what remained of America's most beloved extended family.
"I'm sorry about the trite sound of this," warns Learned, "but the Waltons cast is a family. The sympathy and feeling is there. I adored Will Geer. I was away when he died and for months kept expecting him to walk back into my life. Ellen and I have been very close, and I always felt she understood all my personal problems. Richard and I went up and down, but we had a good relationship. I love the kids too, watching them grow up and become real people. And Ralph [Dad John Walton] Waite and I were particularly close because we shared our problems. Ralph had a difficult drinking problem and I had come out of a difficult divorce and was really floundering. He says we had the best kind of marriage—together 12 hours a day and then we got to go home."
Waite beat his well-publicized battle with the bottle, founded and funded an actors' theater workshop in the L.A. slums, married girlfriend Kerry Shear in 1977 and has just finished directing his first film, On the Nickel; about skid-row bums. Michael recovered from what she called her post-divorce "nervous breakdown" (as well as a short second marriage). For the past two years she has been sharing her Hollywood home with Will Parker, 32, a writer, as well as with her three grown sons from her original 15-year marriage to actor Peter Donat. (In March, after two months R&R, Michael will tour college towns, playing in Dear Liar at night and giving master classes days.)
The cast's togetherness underwent perhaps its severest test with Ellen Corby's near-fatal stroke one fall night in 1976. "Ellen was never late for work," recalls Eric Scott, 20, who plays Ben. "Two producers got worried and went to her house. They saw a hand sticking up, waving faintly. It was Ellen on the floor trying to get their attention through a window." She missed a full season. Then, despite reservations from cast members about her partial paralysis and impaired speech, she insisted on coming back. "Working with her could be excruciatingly slow," Eric reports. "She would do two words over and over. In addition to natural impatience, we were scared that it would be the end of her. It was the honest feeling you have when a grandmother or someone you love has a stroke."
That spunk was totally in character for the Philadelphia-bred Corby who broke into showbiz as an Atlantic City chorus girl before going on to L.A. and 400-odd film roles and numerous writing credits (including two Waltons episodes). After all, it was she who first insisted on adding vinegar to her Grandma role to keep the show from "dissolving into marshmallow." The acerbity turned her relationship with Geer's Grandpa into the delight of the series and made them what the New York Times once called the "most realistic old people on TV."
Now, says Corby, who works at least two days a week and attends therapy daily, "I realized there were people I could reach with a message of strength through my visibility on The Waltons. I wanted to show them that I may be 65 and the victim of a stroke, but I can think and function. After the first show I was flooded with mail from all over the country. Those letters made the struggle worthwhile."
The show's female lead will be inherited by Judy Norton-Taylor, who plays eldest daughter Mary Ellen. She was only 13 when she signed for The Homecoming, Hamner's moving two-hour pilot in 1971. In that original, Patricia Neal played Olivia, and Edgar Bergen was Grandpa. Just turned 21, Norton-Taylor is a divorced woman who shares her Woodland Hills house with David Martinez, a deputy sheriff who moonlights on the L.A. Thunder-birds roller-derby team. Last September she got a scare when someone called threatening to kill her unless she paid $20,000. "Can you imagine anyone dumb enough to think I would have $20,000 in the house?" asks Judy. "They must have been watching too much bad television. I was frightened, but they didn't realize that I live with a cop." Martinez called his police buddies who nabbed two suspects when they picked up the box of old newspapers and one penny that he and Judy had dropped off.
The younger generation of Waltons includes buddies Eric Scott and Jon (Jason) Walmsley, 22 (who regularly double-date with their respective live-in girlfriends), and 17-year-old Mary (Erin) McDonough and 13-year-old Kami (Elizabeth) Cotler. Mary likes everything about the show except the idea of bringing over her boyfriend from her Catholic high school in the San Fernando Valley. "I wouldn't put him through that again," she winces. "He already had to pass muster with my two older brothers at home." The cast is even more protective of Kami, who has spent more than half of her life as a Walton (she joined the show at 6). "It has been fascinating to watch Kami over the years," says Eric. "She started when she was a baby and now she's a real pro. Her body is beginning to change and you can really talk to her like an adult."
Kami's position as the youngest Walton has been usurped this year by 21-month-old upstarts Marshall and Michael Reed, the twins who alternately play John Curtis Willard, the Walton grandchild. "I didn't have time to think whether it would be good for them or not," admits their mom Sharon, an insurance claims supervisor, who heard about the casting call from a Valley mothers-of-twins club. "I just got caught up in the excitement and took them over there that day. They were hired."
TV, though, has never been crueler than it is today, and the odds are that this fourth generation will not have a chance to mature on the show as did their predecessors. Still, the one thing the ratings can't kill is the camaraderie and love of the cast. When Jon Walmsley and his girlfriend, Lisa Harrison, also a singer, were the opening act for the Doobie Brothers (at a benefit for Will Geer's open-air theater), all the "Waltons" were loyally present. Yep, even Ellen Corby.