Writer Earl Hamner Jr. had no idea that a TV series based loosely on his own rural Virginia childhood would become an enduring piece of Americana. But today, more than a quarter century after the final episode of The Waltons, the beloved show still is rerun in TV markets across the United States and in numerous other countries around the world, and its first six seasons are big sellers on DVD.
“I get letters from all over, from people who live in Africa and from people in Paris or London,” says Richard Thomas, who, despite dozens of critically acclaimed acting roles he’s filled since the show ended, is best remembered for his Waltons role as John Boy.
Set in the 1930s, The Waltons aired from 1972 to 1981 and depicted the close-knit family weathering the storms of the Great Depression with each other’s support.
“It was an affirmative story,” says Hamner, who based the series on his upbringing in Schuyler, Va. “We treated very challenging problems: illness, hatred and ignorance. But we were writing about real people—my family, and they happened to be affirmative, good people.”
The sense of family portrayed on the show carried over to the lives of the actors who played the multigenerational family. Even today, the cast maintains the bonds that formed during their time together. Most of them make appearances each year at an annual Waltons fan club gathering, and they check up on each other frequently with phone calls, e-mail or in person.
“I am always horrified at how people on other shows (often don’t) get along,” says Mary McDonough, who portrayed daughter Erin. “I realize how lucky we were. We are all there for each other through births, deaths, marriages and divorces.”
So where did all the family members go when they finally came down from The Waltons’ TV mountain?
Richard Thomas, 56, has worked nonstop since leaving The Waltons following the series’ fifth season. For the last year, he has toured with the national theatrical stage production of 12 Angry Men. Thomas and his second wife live in New York City, where he was born and raised, in part to be close to the theater, but also to provide his children—one from his second marriage and four from his first—with the same cultural offerings he had growing up. And he’s also a grandfather!
Mary McDonough, 46, is an actress, filmmaker and inspirational speaker. The mother of a 15-year-old daughter, she is engaged and lives in Orange County, Calif. She has a recurring part on the CBS series The New Adventures of Old Christine. Diagnosed with lupus several years ago, McDonough attributes the disease to her now-removed silicone breast implants. As a result, she has become an activist to educate women about the possible dangers of implants.
Judy Norton, 50, dropped the surname “Taylor” several years ago following a divorce. She continues to do what she enjoys most—entertain folks—and is thankful for having spent a good portion of her childhood on The Waltons. “How many people have as part of their career a series that ran successfully for nine years, especially a reputable one that won Emmys and People’s Choice awards?” she asks. “It gave me a ton of experience and opened a lot of doors.” Norton lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and 11-year-old son, but travels a great deal for acting work. Also a singer, she performs, writes and directs musical theater productions.
Eric Scott, 49, became a successful businessman rather than pursue a post-Waltons acting career. “The love of the business was not as artistic for me as it was money,” he concedes. “I just wanted to make money, and when the money dried up, I said, ‘I have to do something with my time, and the money will happen.’” Today he owns Chase Messengers, a parcel delivery service, in Sherman Oaks, Calif., a business he helped build. He began as a messenger, moved into sales and bought the business about three years ago. Scott, who lost his first wife to cancer in 1992, remarried almost eight years ago and has three children.
John “Pa” Walton
Ralph Waite, 79, has a long and continuing film and television resume. His most recent credits include the upcoming movie Ace Ventura 3 and the current HBO series Carnivàle, and he continues to work in theater. Waite twice ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat, first in 1990, then in 1998, hoping to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sonny Bono. In 1984, he married for the third time.
Olivia “Ma” Walton
Michael Learned, 69, received three Emmy Awards for her role as the family’s matriarch. She’s remained active with guest roles on Law & Order: SVU, All My Children, One Life to Live and Scrubs. She has been married to her third husband since 1979 and has three sons and five grandchildren.
Will Geer died of respiratory failure at age 76 in 1978. He was cremated and his ashes are buried at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, Calif. His death was written into the series, which continued production. “We all said goodbye to him up on the mountain by the grave,” McDonough says. “That was always poignant to me, because my own dad died right before Will did.”
Ellen Corby died in 1999 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif., after an extended illness at age 87. She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
Jon Walmsley, 52, segued into music when The Waltons came to its end. He currently has his own band, The Ravers, which performs British rock music from the 1960s at engagements around the country, including Disneyland. He also played guitar with Richard Marx, The Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald, Gregg Allman, Merle Haggard and other artists. He has one child, a daughter.
Kami Cotler, 42, fell in love with the part of the country in which the series was based. After graduating from college, she became an elementary school teacher in Nelson County, Va. In 2003, she, her husband and two children returned to the Los Angeles area, where she now is co-director of a charter school.
David W. Harper, 46, followed The Waltons with acting roles in the movies Fletch and 3:15, but left the entertainment industry after appearing in the 1997 A Waltons Easter reunion special. He prefers to keep a low profile and has worked as an artist and art dealer in Los Angeles.
Creator Hamner and the cast members agree that the show’s strong family theme is largely responsible for its ongoing universal popularity.
“It’s people working together for a common goal—family,” McDonough says. “Multigenerations living together in the same house. We just don’t have that anymore in America. I think people watched the show and said, ‘I wish we could be like that, as a people and a nation.’”