'The Waltons': Michael Learned Wanted Olivia to Be An Imperfect Perfect Mom

There’s nothing better than a good, wholesome family TV show like The Waltons. The Waltons gave viewers such incredible insight into the struggles and impact of The Great Depression and World War II that most Americans today never experienced outside of textbooks. The show was influenced by the book Spencer’s Mountain and its author Earl Hamner Jr., who grew up in Virginia’s backwoods and incorporated his childhood in the show. One of the biggest themes in The Waltons is family, and viewers have enjoyed the authenticity of their imperfections. What fans don’t know is – Olivia was originally going to be scripted as a ‘perfect’ mom — until Michael Learned gave her input.

What ‘The Waltons’ was about

The Waltons TV show followed a dynamic family with a mother and father, grandpa and grandma, and six children. It’s narrated the opening and closing by ‘John-Boy’ when he’s much older, although he’s only about 17 when the first season starts. The family works together, struggles, and overcomes many obstacles from The Great Depression to WWII. The family grows immensely in the show’s nine seasons, with viewers getting to see the six children grow from carefree, barefooted children to adults with responsibilities. The Waltons gave viewers an incredible look into southern hospitality, family, and the effect of WWII on families in that time period — like four children enlisting in the military as well as neighboring friends being sent off. 

Despite premiering between 1972 and 1980, The Waltons has always been greatly appreciated for its authenticity of the south, its time period, and its lessons and dedication to family and community. Common Sense Media reviewers say today that, “This is the type of shows we need today!” and “Just about every episode has an important lesson on family values and social responsibility.”

Olivia’s role in ‘The Waltons’

Olivia is John Walton’s wife and the mother of six children – Jason, Mary-Ellen, Jim-Bob, John-Boy, Ben, and Elizabeth. She’s a very religious person who could cite from the Bible at a drop of the hat. And although she is a church-goer, she respects her husband’s right to choose his own path (not without trying, of course!).

She was also deeply committed to her family, kind, motherly, and compassionate. She could be the sweetest person you’ll ever meet, but never put up with misbehaving, violence, and bad manners. If she felt she needed to, she was also a firm believer in punishment when the kids misbehaved. She’s a great representation of mothers (even today) worrying about their family, finances, life, and community. 

Who Learned is and how she pressured creator/writer Earl Hamner Jr.

Michael Learned, also called ‘Miss Michael Learned’ in the opening credits, played the loving mother, Olivia. She brought to life a realistic version of The Great Depression and WWII mother who is dedicated and committed to her family but refuses to hear or discuss the war her sons have become an essential part of. However, we almost didn’t get to see this perfect-imperfect mother on-screen, and it wouldn’t have been the same!

According to MeTV, a fascinating truth about The Waltons is that Learned pushed Earl Hamner Jr. to make Olivia less perfect than intended. They report an interview with Smashing Interviews Magazine where Learned says, “I think that was part of the charm of the show that we weren’t perfect — at least not in the first two years.”

She recounts telling Hamner, “You’ve got to have Olivia make a mistake and punish the wrong child or something a little more human.” Since Hamner based the show on his childhood, Learned asked Hamner, “Earl, didn’t your mother ever do anything wrong ever?” He told her “no” but, fortunately, agreed to let some imperfections be included.

This isn’t the only time an actor heavily influenced their role, but it is certainly one that was a key factor in the betterment of the show. The Waltons may not have been the same without Michael Learned, and viewers could have had a more unrealistic family experience. While Hamner’s mother may have been ‘perfect,’ many can agree that ideal is unrealistic to most families. 

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