The "Super Waltons" Save The Day! Again! - Herbie J Pilato
Published: October 5, 2012 at 09:45 PM GMT
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Last Updated: October 5, 2012 at 09:45 PM GMT
By Herbie J Pilato
I was privileged to attend the special Waltons 40th Anniversary Celebration that was recently held at the legendary Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, in honor of the classic 1972-81 CBS-TV series about the life of the money-poor, but love-rich rural Virginia Depression-era family.
The guests of honor included series creator Earl Hamner, Jr. (ageless as ever in voice, down-to-earth demeanor, and appearance), the charismatic actor Ralph Waite, who portrayed John Walton, the TV patriarch to his talented Waltons family:
Judy Norton-Taylor (Mary Ellen), Mary McDonough (Erin), Kami Cotler (Elizabeth), Jon Walmsley (Jason), Eric Scott (Ben), and David Harper (Jim-Bob). Joe Conley, who played Ike Godsey, genial proprietor of the Waltons Mountain General Store, and although frail and in failing health, still managed a spirited appearance at the event.
Sorely missed were the senior dynamic duo of Will Geer (Grandpa Zeb Walton) and Ellen Corby (Grandma Esther), both of whom have passed away. The show's main voice, Richard Thomas, a.k.a. first-born John-Boy, and Michael Learned, the Waltons core maternal figure Olivia Walton, were unable to attend the event due to prior engagements. (Fortunately, Thomas and Learned appeared at last year's New York four-decades anniversary gathering of the 1971 Waltons TV-movie pilot, The Homecoming, in which Edgar Bergen - father to Candice Murphy Brown Bergen - played Grandpa, and Patricia O'Neal and Andrew Duggan played the Walton parents).
A cavalcade of classic TV stars also attended the Ebell Theatre event, including (but not limited to):
Jeffersons star Marla Gibbs and her 227 co-star Hal Williams, the latter of whom was a regular guest star on The Waltons, as was Richard Hatch (who later starred on the original Battlestar: Galactica after replacing Michael Douglas on The Streets of San Francisco), Stephen Collins (7th Heaven), Gerald McRaney (Simon & Simon, Major Dad, Promised Land, the latter on which Richard Thomas played his younger way-ward brother); Jonathan Frakes (Number 1 from Star Trek: The Next Generation), among many other retro-active actors who came along for the fun ride (including Charlotte Rae, best known as Mrs. Garett from The Facts of Life).
An especially touching tribute to those actors no longer with us, included recollections of the aforementioned Will Geer and Ellen Corby, as well as the late, great Cleavon Little and John Ritter. Little had appeared in the Homecoming pilot and subsequent Waltons episodes, and went on to star in TV show of his own, Temperature's Rising (which lead to his iconic feature film debut in 1974's Blazing Saddles); and Ritter, who before playing the playfully-womanizing Jack Tripper on TV's Three's Company, portrayed the Waltons' Reverend Fordwick.
The Ebell Theatre festivities served as a fund-raiser, headed by Waltons alumni Kami Cotler who, after earning an education degree in Social Sciences at the University of California, went on to her first teaching job that, coincidentally, took her to a small rural Virginia school in the Blue Ridge Mountains, much like the fictional one her Elizabeth Walton character attended on the show.
In 2001, Cotler returned to California, where she began teaching 9th grade at the Environmental Charter High School. In 2004 the raven-haired epitome of grace accepted the job as co-director of the Ocean Charter School, a position held until 2007 when she started her own educational consulting business. A past board member of the American Montessori Society, Kami currently serves as the founding Principal of L.A.'s Environmental Charter Middle School, the education facility that is the beneficiary of Waltons Ebell event.
Meanwhile, other members of the Waltons cast remain just as active:
Judy Norton Taylor continues acting, and also directs and sings (she delivered a lovely performance at the Anniversary while poignant clips of the show were displayed on dual screens on either side of the theatre).
Mary McDonough, too, continues to act, and is a producer/director and best-selling author (her book, Lessons from The Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton, details with telling insight – and great humor - the image and health challenges she faced growing up in Hollywood).
Jon Walmsley is a successful sessions-musician for various TV shows (including ABC Family's Secret Life of the American Teenager).
Eric Scott owns the renowned Chase Messenger Service in Los Angeles and occasionally acts.
David Harper is contemplating a return to acting, and is also interested in writing (he delivered at the Anniversary a moving speech about his experience of working on The Waltons).
Ralph Waite continues to enjoy a semi-regular role as Mark Harmon's father on the CBS-TV hit, NCIS, and the effervescent Michael Learned is always performing somewhere on stage or screen.
As any true fan of The Waltons understands the show stands in TV history as one of the most realistic fictional family portraits the medium has ever come to produce. And as Learned herself once assessed, critics of the series, who claimed it was too saccharine and unrealistic, simply "didn't watch it."
Indeed, for the Waltons were real people who loved one another, but organically so, within the believable context of their situations, and the development of their particular relationships. They laughed and joked, but they also cried and became angry with one another. Just like real families. Many episodes of the series dealt with serious issues beyond its general time-period Depression era premise, such as the Hindenburg, book-burning, and racism.
The show's best episodes, however, dealt more with the smaller stories, the personal nuances between the main characters and the various "visitors" to Waltons Mountain (which was a character in and of itself), including diversely energized characters played in range by the likes of Sissy Spacek or George Tobias. Spacek, in pre-superstar turn, was a young woman facing single parenthood in the 1930s, while Tobias, best known as Abner Kravitz from Bewitched, portrayed the Waltons traveling junk man.
These characters, and others, journeyed in and out of the Waltons' lives and were each the better for meeting John-Boy and his loving-kind brood. The on-screen visitors, along with the off-screen viewers at home, were each somehow "saved" by the richly-developed Walton characters and eloquent storylines that were presented on the show. It's like the Waltons became a family of superheroes who swooped in the save the day, minus all the horns and whistles, but instead using warm-hearted thoughts, and creating random acts of kindness in the process…graceful moves that discreetly healed whatever fictional conflicts were presented on screen maybe right along with a few issues for the home viewers. As TV Guide front man William Keck noted at the Ebell Theatre 40th Anniversary event, "We need more shows like The Waltons on television today."
Keck's wish may soon come true. Earl Hamner told the Anniversary audience that he's developing a new wine-country family TV show (that sounded like a cross between The Waltons and Falcon Crest, the night-time soap Hamner created for CBS in the 1980s).
Until that new shows materializes, the adventures of our favorite Depression Era Virginia protagonists live on, in reruns and DVD, employing their super powers of loving-kindness to heal the given situation at hand, enough so to state:
Who needs unrealistic superheroes like The Avengers, when we've got The Waltons…the characters - and the actors who portrayed them – as well as the behind-the-scenes creative team who brought to life (and light) every one of their wise words, sentiments, images and compassionate ways.
Read more about The Waltons at the following MediaBizBlogger links:
Eric Scott: "Waltons" Icon/King of Hearts
Michael Learned and Granville Van Dusen Shine in "Southern Comforts" at the Falcon Theatre
Herbie J Pilato is an actor/writer/producer/executive who has worked for Syfy, A&E, TLC, Bravo, The Discovery Channel, Universal, Warner Bros. and Sony. The author of a number of acclaimed classic TV tie-in books (The Bionic Book, Life Story - The Book of Life Goes On, The Bewitched Book, Bewitched Forever, The Kung Fu Book of Caine,The Kung Fu Book of Wisdom, and NBC & ME: My Life As A Page In A Book), Herbie J is also the Founder and Executive Director for The Classic TV Preservation Society (a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the gap between positive TV shows and education; www.ClassicTVPS.blogspot.com); the Creative Director for Erie Street Entertainment (a TV production company that is geared toward sci-fi/fantasy, and family-oriented material; www.ErieStreetEntertainment.blogspot.com); and the President of Pop-Culture Consultants (an entertainment consulting firm, www.Pop-CultureConsultants.blogspot.com). He appears frequently on TV in shows, like the TV Guide Channel's new series, 100 Moments That Changed TV and Entertainment Tonight. He has performed on daytime soaps like General Hospital and The Bold and The Beautiful, as well as classic TV shows like The Golden Girls and Highway to Heaven. Herbie J’s new book, TWITCH UPON A STAR: THE BEWITCHED LIFE AND CAREER OF ELIZABETEH MONTGOMERY, will be published in November by Taylor Trade Publishing. To pre-order the book, click on this link https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781589797499 and/or for more information, please email email@example.com.
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