THE WALTONS

U.S. Drama

The Waltons was a highly successful family drama series of the 1970s, which portrayed a sense of family in sharp contrast to the problem-ridden urban families of the "socially relevant" sitcoms such as All in the Family, Maude or Sanford and Son which vied with it for top billing in the Nielsen ratings. Set in the fictitious rural community of Walton's Mountain, Virginia, during the 1930s, the episodic narrative focused upon a large and dignified, "salt-of-the-earth" rural white family consisting of grandparents, parents and seven children. Based upon the semi-autobiographical writings of Earl Hamner, Jr., much of the early narrative was enunciated from the perspective of the oldest son, John Boy, an aspiring writer. The series was based on Hamner's novel Spencer's Mountain, which had been made into a feature film of the same name and subsequently adapted as a CBS-TV holiday special, The Homecoming, in 1971. The initial public reaction to the special was so overwhelming that executives Lee Rich and Bob Jacks of the newly-formed Lorimar Productions convinced CBS to continue it as a series, with Hamner as co-executive producer and story editor.

Lorimar executives constructed the series to emphasize both the locale (the Blue Ridge Mountains) and the historical period (the Great Depression), hoping to evoke a nostalgia for the recent past. They proposed to walk that fine line between "excessive sentimentality and believable human warmth," and took care not to caricature the mountain culture of the family, desiring to portray them as descendants of pioneer stock rather than stereotypical "hillbillies." Production notes in the Hamner papers emphasized the respect to be afforded the family and its culture: "That the Waltons are poor should be obvious, but there should be no hint of squalor or debased living conditions usually associated with poverty." Producers also stressed that The Waltons would not be like earlier wholesome family series Father Knows Best or I Remember Mama transplanted to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia," but instead would be "the continuing story of a seventeen-year old boy who wants to be a writer, growing up during the Depression in a large and loving family."

Premiering in the fall of 1972, the hour-long dramatic series was scheduled in what was considered a "suicidal" time slot against two popular Thursday-night shows, ABC's The Mod Squad and NBC's top-rated The Flip Wilson Show. By its second season, The Waltons achieved the valedictory rank in the overall ratings, and stayed in the top 20 shows for the next several years. During its first season, the series garnered Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series, Best Dramatic Actor (Richard Thomas) and Actress (Michael Learned), Best Supporting Actress (Ellen Corby) and Best Dramatic Writing (John McGreevey), and continued to receive Emmy's for acting and/or writing for the next half a decade. The series endured until 1981, with the extended family maturing and changing--surviving the loss of some characters, the addition of new supporting characters, and the socio-historical changes as the community weathered the Depression era and entered that of World War II. The cast has reunited for a number of holiday and wedding specials in the nearly 15 years since the series ended, and the Walton family has endured in America's mythic imagination as well as in ratings popularity.

The Walton family was portrayed as a cohesive and nearly self-sufficient social world. The family members operated as a team, full of collective wisdom and insight, yet always finding narrative (and physical) space for their individuality. In addition to the continuing narrative development of each regular character and of the family dynamics over the course of the series, each episode frequently dealt with a conflict or tension introduced by an outsider who happened into the community (Ziegler described these characters as "foreigners, drifters, fugitives, orphans, and others just passing through") bringing their own problems which were potentially disruptive influences upon the harmony and equilibrium of the Walton's Mountain community. The narrative of each episode worked through the resolution of these tensions within the household, as well as the healing or spiritual uplift achieved by the outsider characters as they assimilated the values of the family and learned their lessons of love and morality.

The series was critically praised as being bittersweet, "wholesome", emotion-laden viewing. Reviewers noted that the series conveyed a vivid authenticity of both historical time and cultural place, as well as an emotional verisimilitude regarding the portrayal of a certain type of family life rooted in that time and place. Devoted viewers besieged the network, producers and cast members with fan letters praising the show and expressing their degree of emotional identification with many aspects of the series. Many considered the series to be the epitome of television's capacity for romantic, effective and moving storytelling in its evocation of childhood and its ability to tap into a deep desire for a mythicized community and family intimacy.

Yet the series also had its detractors, who complained that The Waltons was too sweet, sappily sentimental, and exploitative of viewers' emotions. Crowther remarked that its "homey wisdom and Sunday school platitudes have been known to make me gag"; others labeled it an "obviously corny, totally unreal family" with characters too good to be true. Many recognized in the show an "intolerable wistfulness" for a romanticized past constructed through the creation of false memory and hopeless longing. Some critics noted that such a romanticized image of the era could make viewers forget the real nature of rural poverty. "The Depression was not a time for the making of strong souls" or healthy, well-nourished bodies, according to Roiphe, who criticized the series for associating poverty with elevated moral values and neutralizing the social, economic and political upheavals of the 1930s "behind a wall of tradition, goodness and good fortune." Roiphe noted how skillfully the media producers were able to design and articulate myths of American happiness and innocence during the historical period the series portrayed; however, the viewers who admired the series also eagerly participated in that construction of a mythical past. Other critics have noted that despite its embrace of liberal humanitarian values (against racism, etc.), The Waltons' inherent conservatism has made it ripe for appropriation by right-wing "family values" religious groups. Indeed, it has become a benchmark series for The Family Channel, the media outlet for Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, which has held exclusive syndication rights for the series since 1991.

-Pamela Wilson

 


The Waltons

NARRATOR Earl Hamner, Jr.

CAST

John Walton ..............................................Ralph Waite
Olivia Walton (1972-1980) .....................Michael Learned
Zeb (Grandpa) Walton (
1972-1978) ..................Will Geer
Esther (Grandma) Walton (1972-1979)............Ellen Corby
John Boy Walton (1972-1977) ................Richard Thomas
John Boy Walton (1979-1981).............. Robert Wightman
Mary Ellen Walton Willard ..................Judy Norton-Taylor
Jim-Bob Walton ...................................David W. Harper
Elizabeth Walton........................................ Kami Cotler
Jason Walton ..........................................Jon Walmsley
Erin Walton .........................Mary Elizabeth McDonough
Ben Walton ...................................................Eric Scott
Ike Godsey................................................. Joe Conley
Corabeth Godsey (1974-1981) ......Ronnie Claire Edwards
Sheriff Ep Bridges ...................................John Crawford
Mamie Baldwin........................................... Helen Kleeb
Emily Baldwin.......................................... Mary Jackson
Verdie Foster.......................................... Lynn Hamilton
Rev. Matthew Fordwick (1972-1977)................ John Ritter
Rosemary Hunter Fordwick (1973-77) ...Mariclare Costello
Yancy Tucker (1972-1979) .......................Robert Donner
Flossie Brimmer (1972-1977) .....................Nora Marlowe
Maude Gormsley (1973-1979)........................ Merie Earle
Dr. Curtis Willard (1976-1978) .......................Tom Bower
Rev. Hank Buchanan (1977-1978)................... Peter Fax
J. D. Pickett (1978-1981) ........................Lewis Arquette
John Curtis Willard (1978-1981) [Alternating]
......................................... Marshall Reed/Michael Reed
Cindy Brunson Walton (1979 1981) ...........Leslie Winston
Rose Burton (1979-1981) ..............................Peggy Rea
Serena Burton (1979-1980) ............................Martha Nix
Jeffrey Burton (1979-1980) ........................Keith Mitchell
Toni Hazleton (1981) .................................Lisa Harrison
Arlington Wescott Jones(Jonesy)(1981) ..Richard Gilliland

PRODUCERS   Lee Rich, Earl Hamner, Jr., Robert L. Jacks, Andy White, Rod Peterson

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 178 Episodes

CBS
September 1972-August 1981             Thursday 8:00-9:00

FURTHER READING

Crowther, Hal. "Boxed In." The Humanist (Buffalo, New York) July/August 1976.

Hamner, Earl, Papers. The Waltons Mountain Museum in Schuyler, Virginia. Roiphe, Anne. "The Waltons." New York Times Magazine, 18 November, 1973.

"Wholesome Sentiment in the Blue Ridge." Life (New York) 13 October 1972.

Ziegler, Robert E. "Memory-spaces: Themes of the House and the Mountain in The Waltons." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), 1981.

 

See also Family on Television; Melodrama