LIFE

‘The Waltons’: 13 Surprising Facts From Behind The Scenes Of This Classic Show

by Jess Catcher
Jess grew up in Oklahoma before moving to New York to become a writer. She has a cat named Agnes.

For nine seasons spanning 10 years, audiences tuned in to watch the wholesome story of John-Boy and his family on The Waltons.

After the success of their initial television movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, the network decided to take a chance on a full series run despite some reservations from top brass. Set in the mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II, the show epitomized core family values and traditions that folks clearly wanted more of in the 1970s.

However, I had no idea how much was going on behind the scenes of the beloved series — but despite any pain or frustration, and even surprising political influence, it’s clear the cast members formed a strong, loving bond over their years on the show.

Take a look to learn more about the iconic fictional family and let us know in the comments if we missed any of your favorite facts about the series.

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1. The Waltons' Mountain Goes By Another Name

Hollywood Hills

The Hollywood Hills, which could be seen south of the Warner Bros. lot where the series was filmed, were used as a substitute for Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

2. Studio Heads Thought The Show Would Fail

The Walton Family

A “rural purge” had begun on all networks, regarding their homespun sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, just before the show’s 1971 premiere. But The Waltons surprised studio executives with its success.

Its popularity helped revitalize the format and inspired shows like Little House on the Prairie to follow in its footsteps.

3. 'The Waltons' Brought The End Of Flip Wilson's Show

Flip Wilson dressed as Geraldine, interviewing Dr. David Reuben

The boisterous comedian’s variety show had reigned in the second-place slot in television ratings for four years when The Waltons premiered and became an instant hit, knocking Flip out of the top 30 and taking their spot in second place.

Rather than let his show continue to suffer from the competition, Flip Wilson simply announced it would be its last season.

4. Henry Fonda Was Almost John Walton

Poster of Spencer's Mountain

Network executives wanted extra star power for the series and specifically requested Henry Fonda for the father figure after seeing him play a similar role in the film Spencer’s Mountain, which was based on a novel by the show’s creator, Earl Hamner Jr.

However, according to the New York Times, when they showed the actor their pilot episode, he balked at the idea, saying, “What do you want me for? The family is the star. You don’t need me.”

5. Richard Thomas And Ralph Waite Played Father And Son Before

Ralph White, Richard Thomas, and Michael Learned

Though he was uncredited in the role, Ralph portrayed Richard’s dad in the 1969 teen drama film Last Summer just a few years before they were cast as the Waltons in their initial TV movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.

Richard’s co-stars in the film, Catherine Burns and Bruce Davison, also made guest appearances in episodes of the series.

6. Ralph Was A Licensed Minister

Close up of Ralph Waite

Contrary to his character’s aversion to attending church, Ralph was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and became a religious book editor for a publishing house before deciding to take on his acting career.

7. John Ritter Saved Mary Elizabeth McDonough's Life

Mary Elizabeth McDonough as Erin Walton

Mary, who played Erin Walton, admitted on an episode of Oprah that the extreme pressure of being “the pretty one” on the series led her to harmful eating habits in order to look thin on camera, especially in scenes where she would be seen in a bathing suit.

Even when she developed an ulcer and her hair began to thin, the young actress tried to hide her pain from her co-stars before John, who played Reverend Matthew Fordwick, finally got her to open up.

“He said, ‘No, no, I want you to start doing a journal.’ And that night I started journaling and it saved my life,” she explained.

8. The Grandparents' Failing Health Reflected Real Life

Will Geer and Ellen Corby with a pig

Grandma Esther’s stroke near the end of season five was a reflection of actress Ellen Corby’s real-life health scare, which caused her to take a leave from the show. It was her on-screen husband who found her passed out following her very real stroke on set and rushed to get her assistance.

Shortly after she returned to filming, Grandpa Zeb’s death was written in following the passing of actor Will Geer in 1978.

9. The Waltons' House Had A Second Life

Poster photo for The Waltons

The family’s fictional home still stands on the Warner Bros. lot and was used decades later on another series, Gilmore Girls, as the Dragonfly Inn.

10. The Show Was Created To Appease Congress

Photo of U.S. Capitol 1845

According to Kami Cotler, who played the youngest Walton sibling, Elizabeth, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times for the show’s 40th anniversary, the series was a direct reaction to congressional hearings questioning the moral quality of television at the time.

11. The Cast Wasn't Paid Well

Headshot of Eric Scott

While discussing the series with Closer, Eric Scott, who played Ben Walton, admitted, “We did not get rich from that show,” and claimed that the three higher-billed actors — Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, and Michael Learned — were treated much nicer than the rest.

However, he also revealed that despite everything, they all felt love and support from their fans throughout the years.

12. The Kids Helped Ralph Get A Fresh Start

Screencap of Walton family at dinner table

Judy Norton, who played eldest daughter, Mary Ellen Walton, told Closer how the children softened their fictional father’s heart in reality and helped him finally battle demons he’d been carrying for years.

“He said, ‘I sat there one day at the kitchen table with all you kids and I felt like such a fake.’ He took himself to AA and got sober,” she explained.

13. It's All Based On The Narrator's Real Life

Earl Hamner and Richard Thomas on The Waltons set

The series’ creator, Earl Hamner, drew inspiration from his own upbringing in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with six siblings during the Great Depression and World War II — and he lent his voice for the narration.

The character of John-Boy is loosely based on his own experiences.

Did we miss your favorite fact about this beloved series? Let us know below and be sure to SHARE with your friends!