I have a little confession to make. Growing up an only child in upstate New York, I often envied the busy, full house of TV's The Waltons, an Emmy-winning, Depression-era drama that ran on CBS from 1971-1981 and spawned several reunion movies, the last airing in 1997.
There have been several reunion events since then, but always missing one or more of the core cast. But on Saturday, Sept. 29, the entire surviving cast — including mother Michael Learned, father Ralph Waite, Richard Thomas (who played eldest child John-Boy), the show's six other children, series creator Earl Hamner, Jr. and a slew of recurring players and guest stars — will come together at Los Angeles' historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre for a 40th anniversary event. The evening will features special tributes from celebrity guests and a discussion panel moderated by yours truly.
I spoke with Learned, who collected three Emmy Awards for her role as steely matriarch Olivia Walton, about her excitement over the upcoming celebration.
TV Guide Magazine: How long has it been since you were all together?
Michael Learned: This reunion, I think, will be the first time that every single one of us will be there.
TV Guide Magazine: A lot of TV casts are not as enthusiastic about reuniting as y'all are. Why do you think that is?
Learned: I think the show had a blessing. I know that sounds corny, but I believe some things are gifts from God. I think Earl Hamner's heart permeated into the show. We all loved each other and still do. We were very lucky. I can't think of anybody who isn't grateful for being part of it. We really were a loving family and I think that came through the screen.
TV Guide Magazine: What were some of your favorite moments?
Learned: Usually whenever I had something to do other than pouring coffee. There was one show where my [real-life] ex-husband came on to do an episode, which was quite an experience. I went into a tailspin during that show and none of us put it together that it was partly because I was still going through the grieving process of my divorce.
TV Guide Magazine: Looking back, what are you most proud of about the character?
Learned: People have an image Olivia as nice and sweet, but she was also judgmental, stern and strong. At the time, she was a role model for women's lib. I used to get letters from women's movements thanking Olivia for not being a doormat and always speaking her mind.
TV Guide Magazine: Yet you chose to leave the series after eight seasons.
Learned: I felt there really wasn't much left for Olivia to do except ask questions of the grown kids. I felt it was time to move on. In the last years, by the time the kids were grown, we were kind of grasping for stories. The first five, six years were the heart of the show, with Grandma and Grandpa still around and Richard Thomas still there. John-Boy didn't have a different face and voice [another actor was brought in to assume the role]. That's when I really knew it was time to leave.
TV Guide Magazine: Years ago, The Little House on the Prairie mom, Karen Grassle, told me similar feelings inspired her to move on.
Learned: Yes, I know Karen quite well. I don't want to divulge anything she told me in confidence, but I think I had a happier experience on my show than she did. Let's just put it that way.
TV Guide Magazine: Was leaving difficult for you?
Learned: No, it wasn't difficult to leave, but it was difficult after. I used to have dreams about the group photo, which we always complained about at the time. I dreamed that they were taking the new season photo and they wouldn't let me be in it. I would wake up crying, oddly enough. I had no idea I would miss everyone so much.
TV Guide Magazine: In your mind, what would the Waltons be doing today, 40 years after we met them?
Learned: Well, we started in the 1930s, so it would be the '70s. It would be the hippie times. God save us. Grandpa would be growing marijuana and everyone would be smoking it.
TV Guide Magazine: What else is going on in your life?
Learned: Next year I'm going up to Canada to do the play Driving Miss Daisy. And this August, Ralph and I are going to be performing Love Letters in Ontario. We haven't worked together in a long time so it's going to be wonderful. Those characters are so WASPy — far removed from John and Olivia. There's some swearing in it that people get upset about, and she defends his alcoholism. Quite a different scenario from John and Olivia, but I think the love Ralph and I genuinely feel for each other will shine through.
If you'll be in Los Angeles and would like to join us at the reunion, tickets go on sale starting today, and can be purchased at www.waltons40th.com. The event, The Waltons 40th Anniversary: Celebrating Family & Education, is a fundraiser for Environmental Charter Middle School, where Kami Cotler, who played youngest child, Elizabeth Walton, is the school principal.