Synopsis by Hal Erickson
The surprise hit of the 1972-1973 TV season, The Waltons is one of a handful of weekly, hour-long dramatic series that can truly qualify as "wholesome family entertainment" -- and one of the very few that succeeded spectacularly on those terms. The Waltons was created by Earl Hamner Jr., who based the series on his own experiences while growing up in the South during the 1920s and 1930s. Hamner had previously written an autobiographical novel with a similar theme, Spencer's Mountain, which was filmed in 1963 with Henry Fonda in the lead. Eight years later, Hamner wrote the screenplay for the TV movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, again adapted from his own novel, in which he introduced the Walton family of Jefferson County, VA, who lived and worked on a "mountain" bearing the family's name in the Depression Years. Patricia Neal and Andrew Duggan starred as Olivia and John Walton, with Edgar Bergen and Ellen Corby as Grandpa and Grandma Walton, Richard Thomas as oldest son John-Boy Walton (Earl Hamner's "alter ego"), and Judy Norton-Taylor, Mary Beth McDonough, Kami Cotler, Eric Scott, David W. Harper and Jon Walmsley, respectively, as the other Walton children, Mary Ellen, Erin , Elizabeth, Ben, Jim-Bob, and Jason. A huge ratings success, The Homecoming was spun off into the weekly CBS series The Waltons, beginning September 14, 1972. All of the actors who'd played the Walton children in the movie repeated their roles, as did Ellen Corby as Grandma Walton; however, appearing as John Walton in the series was Ralph Waite while Michael Learned was cast as Olivia Walton, and Will Geer played Grandpa. During its nine-season network run, The Waltons covered the years 1934 through 1945. Although the series started in the depths of the Depression, the Walton family remained relatively solvent thanks to the lumber mill run by John and Grandpa. As in the movie, the character of John-Boy Walton remained the "eyes" of series creator Earl Hamner Jr., who narrated each episode. Richard Thomas remained in the role of John-Boy until the series' sixth season, maturing from high-school student to college scholar, ever in pursuit of a professional writing career (at one point, John-Boy set up his own local newspaper, "The Blue Ridge Chronicle"). When Thomas left the series, it was explained that he had become a war correspondent in Paris, had been reported missing from action, and had returned seriously injured and in coma. Upon "awakening", John-Boy was more or less reborn in the form of actor Robert Wightman, who stayed with the series until its cancellation. There were several other personnel changes in the course of the series' run. In 1977, Ellen Corby suffered a stroke which rendered her inactive; accordingly, Grandma Walton was also felled by a stroke, and remained off-camera until her dramatic return at the end of the sixth season, in which she turned to Grandpa and said her first words since her illness: "You old fool." Sadly, Will Geer died shortly after this episode was filmed, thus Grandma became a widow at the beginning of season six. In another development that year, Olivia Walton was diagnosed with tuberculosis and bundled off to a sanitarium; this plot device was created to accommodate actress Michael Learned, who had decided not to return to the series as a regular once her contract had expired. Olivia would make occasional return visits thereafter, but only in a "guest star" capacity. During Olivia's absence, her cousin Rose Burton (Peggy Rea) took over her duties in the Walton household. As the series rolled along, the Walton kids matured and tried to find their purpose and place in the outside world. Mary Ellen became a nurse and married doctor Curtis Willard (Tom Bower), who was reported killed in the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor (it turned out that the report was erroneous, and Mary Ellen and Curtis were reunited in the final season); just before the war, however, Mary Ellen gave birth to a son named John Curtis. Elsewhere, Ben Walton eloped with a girl named Cindy Brunson (Leslie Winston) and later became the father of a daughter named Virginia. And Jason, who, like the rest of the Walton boys, had enlisted to serve in WW2, became engaged to a WAC named Toni Hazelton (played by Lisa Harrison, the real-life wife of the actor playing Jason, Jon Walmsley). Though The Waltons ended its CBS run on August 20, 1981, the property was revived with a trio of made-for-TV movies in 1982 and 1983, in which several loose plot strands were neatly knotted up; there was also a brace of specials in 1993 (A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion) and 1995 (A Walton Wedding). As big a hit in syndication as it had been on the network, The Waltons has in recent years been rebroadcast on the family-oriented PAX television network.