THE WALTONS (1972)

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The Waltons

For nine years, the world watched and cried and laughed and suffered and exalted with this family from Waltons Mountain. Three generations of family under one roof, living life to its fullest during the hardest financial time the United States has ever known. John and Olivia Walton had 8 children: John-Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Ben, Erin, twins Jim-Bob and Joseph (who died at birth), and Elizabeth. Adding wisdom and a certain about of devilishness to this family were Grandma and Grandpa Walton. And, as if this weren't enough in the character department, throw in Ike Godsey, the local proprietor, and the Baldwin sisters, suppliers of Father's "recipe" during the dry times of prohibition.

In December of 1971, CBS aired a television special 'The Homecoming' which won strong critical acclaim and audience response. Due to its surprising success, CBS turned to 'The Homecoming' screenwriter Earl Hamner, Jr., to develop his story into a full hour, weekly series, and in September of 1972, we saw the birth of what is lovingly known as the granddaddy of all family-themed dramas. Like the television special the show was based on, 'The Waltons' was inspired by the lifetime kept diary of its head writer, Earl Hamner, Jr. Hamner was joined by John McGreevey (whose writing credits would take a story of their own), Marion Hargrove and Nigel McKeand. The story of 'The Waltons' chronicled the everyday life of the Walton family, a family of 11 living in rural Virginia during the depression. The series nearly mirror imaged the early life and experiences of its creator, who had been one of 18 children, growing up near Schuyler, Virginia, before leaving home in the late 1930s to pursue writing. The origin of the series had been the Hamner scripted motion picture, Spencer's Mountain, set in Wyoming, and starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, and James MacArthur.

'The Homecoming' special had not been aired with the thought of it being a series, but it received such a high level of favourable public reaction that CBS executives decided to try and construct a series around Hamner's creation. In 'The Homecoming', the roles of Olivia Walton, John Walton and Grandpa ("Zeb") were played by Patricia Neal, Andrew Dugan and Edgar Bergen, respectively. When it came time to shoot the series though, these three roles were recast by Michael Learned (Olivia Walton), Ralph Waite ((John Walton) and Will Greer (Grandpa Walton). Ellen Corby stayed on as Grandma ("Ester") Walton, and the young actors and actresses who had filled the roles as the Walton children also stayed on; Richard Thomas as John (John-Boy) Walton Jr.; Jon Walmsley as Jason; Judy Norton as Mary Ellen; Eric Scott as Ben; Mary Elizabeth McDonough as Erin; David W. Harper as Jim-Bob; and Kami Cotler as Elizabeth.

When first aired in the USA, CBS gave the show little chance of success as it was slotted on Thursday nights opposite 'The Flip Wilson Show' on NBC and 'The Mod Squad' on ABC. Happily, over their apprehensions, the show attracted not only good reviews its first year, but also 13 various television awards including 6 Emmys and 2 Golden Globes. The surest sign of The Waltons' success, after finishing 20th its first season, was the gleaning of a large enough audience in its second season to pass the second slotted American show, Flip Wilson, and finish second only to 'All in the Family.' From this point on, the series enjoyed a growing level of popularity through the entirety of its run. One of the prime reasons for the endurance and continued love for this show was that the central characters matured and developed in accordance to and in compliment of the larger scale changes taking place in the world around them. We watched each of the children grow into adults and leave the nest. Each season brought changes in their lives, their loves, we watched them mature, fall in love, get hurt, marry and have families of their own. Some real life changes became reflected in the series as well, including Ellen Corby suffering a stroke in the fall of 1976, which meant her absence from the series for a year and a half while recovering, returning at the end of the 1977-1978 season. As she was making preparations to return for the new season, sadly, Will Greer died. It was wisely decided that Greer's shoes were too big to fill and the character of Grandpa would not be recast. During the opening show of the seventh season we watched the Walton family adjust to the unexpected loss of their beloved Grandpa - the audience sadly adjusted right along with them.

As the series progressed so other regular members of the Walton clan passed on through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Jefferson County, allowing the viewer to observe a family as it naturally changed. By the time the series moved its final years all four Walton boys had left home. John-Boy was writing for Stars and Stripes in Paris; Ben had joined the Seabees and in the South Pacific; Jason was in the army; and Jim-Bob was in boot camp at Fort Langley, Virginia. The series left the weekly line-up in 1981. Audiences were delighted, though to happily return to Waltons Mountain a number of times over the coming years: 'A Wedding on Walton's Mountain' (February 1982), for Erin's wedding; 'Mother's Day on Walton's Mountain' (May 1982); and 'A Day of Thanks on Walton's Mountain' (November 1982); 'A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion' (November 1993) which was centered around the time of President Kennedy's assassination; 'A Walton Wedding' (February 1995), for John-Boy's wedding; and lastly 'A Walton's Wedding' (March 1997), set around the time of man's first walk on the moon, and Jon's being entrusted with the Baldwin sisters secret recipe.

The wholesome, low-key dramatic, homespun approach of 'The Waltons', portraying a loving family life, paved the way for an all of the family based series that came in its wake such as 'Eight Is Enough', 'The Fitzpatricks', 'Little House on the Prairie', 'Mulligan's Stew', even up to and including '7th Heaven.' 'The Waltons' is still affectionately watched daily by scores of viewers world-wide. Some view the Waltons as a well-made, but overly idealized and nostalgic depiction of golden days that in reality weren't really all that golden at all. But for those loyal fans, it was a decade of watching a family grow through hard work, respect and mostly love, something television and the world, certainly, could use much more of.

Good night, John Boy. Good night everyone.

Review: : Maggie Roberts. 2003

for Television Heaven