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40th anniversary celebration of 'The Waltons'

The family show, which premiered during a cynical and turbulent time, quickly caught on with viewers. Cast members and guest stars will reunite Saturday.

September 28, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • The cast of "The Waltons," including Judy Norton Taylor, left, Ralph Waite, Michael Learned, Ellen Corby, and Eric Scott.
The cast of "The Waltons," including Judy Norton Taylor, left,… (Associated Press )

The odds were against "The Waltons" when it premiered on CBS on Sept. 14, 1972.

It was a cynical and turbulent time. U.S. troops were still fighting in Vietnam. The Watergate break-in had made headlines over the summer. And the presidential election that would see Richard Nixon win in a landside for a second term against Democratic challenger George McGovern was just two months away.

"The Waltons," which was based on the childhood memories of the show's creator and narrator, Earl Hamner Jr., was a wholesome family drama that began during the Depression of the 1930s and continued through World War II. The hourlong series focused on the tightknit Walton clan: John (Ralph Waite) and Olivia (Michael Learned), their seven children and John's parents (Ellen Corby and Will Geer), all of whom lived together in the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia.

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Not only did "The Waltons" seem like a soft sell, but the show was also given a dreadful time slot: Thursdays at 8 p.m. opposite NBC's red-hot variety series "The Flip Wilson Show" and ABC's hip cop series "The Mod Squad."

"When CBS initially put on the show, the story is that [CBS] did it to appease Congress," said Kami Cotler, who was all of 6 when she first began playing Elizabeth Walton in the 1971 TV movie "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story," which was the basis for "The Waltons."

"Congress had been having hearings about the quality of television," said Cotler, who became a teacher and middle school principal. "The rumor was that they put it against 'Flip Wilson' and 'The Mod Squad' because they didn't think it would survive. They thought, 'We can just tell Congress America doesn't want to see this.'"

Waite was a New York stage actor struggling in Hollywood when he was asked to read for the part of John Walton. He had no desire to do a series, but he said his agent assured him, "It will never sell. You do the pilot. You pick up a couple of bucks and then you go back to New York."

Waite didn't go back to New York, because the series quickly struck a chord. Richard Thomas, who had made a few features, became a TV superstar as Hamner's alter ego, John Boy Walton. The ratings flourished, and Emmys soon followed. "The Mod Squad" was history after 1973, and "Flip Wilson" disappeared in 1974. "The Waltons" endured for nine seasons and several TV movies and has lived on all these decades since in endless repeats on TV and now DVD.

On Saturday night, many cast members and guest stars — including Waite and six of the actors who played Walton children, but not Learned and Thomas, who had previous commitments — will be appearing at the 40th anniversary reunion at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. The evening will benefit the Environmental Charter Middle School in Inglewood, where Cotler is the principal.

Hamner, who also will be in attendance, said the series succeeded because "the climate was right. The timing was just right."

Because of the uncertainty of the era, he added, "there was a yearning for ... stability and unity. There was a yearning [to see] attractive people trying to make decent lives for themselves and their children. Even today, while there are family shows on the air, more often than not they are comedic, with people acting silly rather than with some sense of dignity and reality."

susan.king@latimes.com

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