When The Waltons appeared on television in 1972, the cast of the show didn’t think that it was going to make it past one season. In fact, it seems that there were some people working on the series that didn’t even believe it was going to make it to air! This apparently included Michael Learned, who played matriarch Olivia Walton on the series. According to Olivia, she had been led to believe that the production of the show was some kind of tax write-off. The series ended up being a runaway hit, and lasted for nine seasons. However, only seven of those seasons ended up including Michael, as she left the series before it ended. The actress still regrets the decision. Join Facts Verse as we explore how Michael Learned still regrets leaving The Waltons to this day.
Michael Learned Thought The Waltons Would Flop
Before The Waltons came on the air, Michael Learned was a recently divorced single mother struggling to make it big in the entertainment industry. The performer had nursed dreams of stardom for most of her life, and her former husband had been an aspiring performer alongside her. Michael took her role on The Waltons because she needed the money, not because she personally believed in the series. Little could the actress have predicted that the historical drama was going to make her a huge star!
Just prior to The Waltons, Michael Learned had been making some waves as an actress on the stage. She had appeared in a production of a play by the name of Private Lives, with the production having been directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Around the same time, she also appeared on stage as Cleopatra in a notable production. When she received the offer to play the character of matriarch Olivia Walton on The Waltons, she wasn’t initially enthused. The character was older than the characters that Michael was aspiring to play, and she was also unsure about working in television.
Life is tough on a single mother, and Michael Learned ended up taking her job on The Waltons just for the paycheck. According to Michael, she had never seen so much money in her life! She was offered the chance to make over a thousand dollars a week working on the show, which helped out a lot with her and her sons’ living situation. Michael took the money, but she didn’t think that the show was going to go anywhere. According to Michael herself, there were theories going around during the production of The Waltons’ first season that the show was simply a tax write-off.
Michael Enjoyed the Money That She Got From Television
Michael Learned was grateful for the relatively huge amount of money that she was getting on The Waltons, but she was also perturbed by the amount of hours that she had to put in. According to the actress, she’d oftentimes have to work 14-hour days just to meet the series’ rigorous demands. As one might imagine, Michael was likely at least somewhat happy about the prospect of The Waltons coming to an end after only one season, even if it meant that she was no longer going to be making her hefty pay. Michael could go back to working her way up the ranks on stage with a good deal more money in her bank account than before. However, The Waltons ended up lasting much more than just a season.
Contrary to the theory that was going around the set of The Waltons during the production of the show’s first season, the show was more than just a tax write-off, and it did end up making it to air. In fact, it ended up becoming something of an instant sensation with critics! Critics fell in love with the historical drama, and Michael Learned essentially achieved her dream of stardom overnight. However, this victory came with the caveat that the role that made her famous was one that she wasn’t very passionate about. Not only that, but it was one that she was going to have to continue torturing herself with rigorous shooting schedules in order to perform.
Whether or not The Waltons was only meant to last for a season, it ended up lasting for nine. The show became a favorite with the critics, and the critics gave the network a reason to keep the series on the air until it could start pulling in an audience. By the end of the show’s first season, it had gained so much traction with audience members that a second season was inevitable.
The Waltons Was an Unlikely Phenomenon
A second season was produced, and then a third. The show would go on to span nine seasons in total. However, only seven of these seasons featured Michael Learned as a main cast member. When the seventh season of The Waltons finished production in 1979, Michael opted out of returning as a main cast member for the show’s eight season. Instead, she appeared a few times as a guest.
Michael Learned appeared in a guest-starring capacity during The Waltons’ eighth season, but she didn’t show up at all during the series’ ninth and final season. In the decades since this all went down, people have often wondered why Michael quit The Waltons before it’s proper end. Now, we finally know the answer! Prior to Michael Learned leaving the series in 1979, another major player had left The Waltons. Though Michael Learned played the family matriarch, the main character of The Waltons was really her on-screen son, whose name was John-Boy. Actor Richard Thomas initially played John-Boy. However, he was eventually replaced with another actor, this time by the name of Robert Wightman.
Changing the actor that played John-Boy spelt the end for The Waltons, even if that end came relatively slowly. The series started losing popularity as soon as the change was made, and this included with the cast and crew. Michael Learned was one of many people working on the series that became somewhat disenchanted after Richard Thomas left the program. Richard had been such a major part of the series, and it was silly to think that he could’ve been replaced. Michel tried her best to continue performing her role as if nothing had changed. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The loss of Richard Thomas was the major reason that Michael turned her back on The Waltons, but there were a few other things that helped with the choice.
Michael Disliked Working on The Waltons
As we’ve already established, Michael Learned was never one for the shooting schedule that television demanded. Michael could never really get used to the rigorous demands of shooting The Waltons, even though the show gave her lots of money and fame. After seven seasons of constant grinding, Michael couldn’t keep it up anymore. Given that the show was now a shell of it’s former self in the wake of Richard Thomas’ departure, it was an easy decision for Michael Learned to turn her back on the program.
The role of John-Boy was recast after Richard Thomas left, but Olivia Walton was simply written off of the program after Michael Learned’s departure. The series couldn’t go on without John-Boy, but it could feasibly go on without Olivia. Still, the character was sorely missed. The writers explained Olivia’s absence by saying that she had come down with a case of tuberculosis, which necessitated a long trip to Arizona for medical treatment. As we’ve already established, Michael showed up in a guest-starring capacity a few times during The Walton’s eighth season before disappearing altogether from it’s ninth and final season. However, Michael Learned did reprise the role of Olivia Walton in some made-for-television reunion features following The Waltons.
Michael Learned is still around today, and she still loves to reminiscence about her time on The Waltons. Though she didn’t have the best time filming the series, she still maintains friendships with many of the people that she met while filming the show. In addition to disliking the rigorous shooting schedules that television production demanded, Michael also didn’t like the character of Olivia Walton. Michael felt that the character was too saccharine. Despite this, Michael claims today that she wishes that she had stayed on for the duration of The Waltons’ run.
Michael Wishes She Hadn’t Quit the Show
For posterity’s sake, Michael Learned wishes that she had appeared as a main cast member in the final two seasons of The Waltons. According to her, it wouldn’t have been that difficult, and it would’ve been worth it just to say that she did it. This is perhaps why the actress was so keen on coming back to remedy her mistake by reprising the role of Olivia Walton in the aforementioned reunion features. Though the long days of shooting The Waltons got monotonous, there were times when things happened that shook up the set of the program. For instance, there was en episode called “The Prize” that reunited Michael on the screen with the husband that she’d divorced just before the series premiered.
The man that Michael Learned was married to before starring on The Waltons was named Peter Donat. During an episode of The Waltons wherein a former flame of Olivia’s came back into town and caused tension between the matriarch and her husband, the producers thought it would be perfect to cast Michael Learned’s own former husband. Thankfully, the situation wasn’t at all awkward! Michael and her former husband got along fine after their divorce.
Michael Learned is still around today at the age of 83. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Michael Learned was a struggling single mother at the time that she was cast on The Waltons, and that she didn’t think that the show was even going to make it to air? Comment down below!