From 1972 to 1981, the Depression Era returned to America through the popular television series, The Waltons. For nearly a decade, American viewers embraced The Waltons into popular culture as a symbol of past family values that were largely absent in American television programs.
Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of The Waltons, grew up an aspiring writer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Schuyler, Virginia. His early novel, The Homecoming, was a literary recollection of his own Depression Era childhood, of which he speaks fondly: "We were in a depression, but we weren't depressed. We were poor, but nobody ever bothered to tell us that. To a skinny, awkward, red headed kid who secretly yearned to be a writer … each of those days seemed filled with wonder." In 1970, Lorimar Productions approached Hamner to create a one-hour television special based on The Homecoming, and hence, the Walton family made its television debut. Against the advice of reviewers and network executives who had little faith in the appeal of family programming, CBS took a chance and placed The Waltons in a Thursday night prime-time slot. To the surprise of many, the series not only held its own, but maintained a number eight position in the ratings for years to follow.
For viewers concerned with the growing number of television shows whose content often included violence or sexually oriented themes, the Walton family offered a refreshing option. Representative of Hamner's own family, members of the large Walton clan were richly endowed with a common thread of love, pride, and responsibility, yet each uniquely contributed to the depiction of rural America from the Depression era to World War II. This ideal family was headed by proud patriarch and millwright John Sr. (Ralph Waite), his wife, Olivia, a loving and devout Christian mother (Michael Learned), and the prolific writer and boy-next-door, John-Boy (Richard Thomas). There was Mary-Ellen, the headstrong nurse (Judy Norton), the musically talented Ben (Jon Walmsley), the lovely Erin (Mary McDonough), and Ben, the budding entrepreneur (Eric Scott). Along with these eight were aspiring aviator Jim Bob (David W. Harper), Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), the youngest Walton, and the grandparents—Grandpa Zeb, the beloved woodsman (Will Geer), and tenacious Grandma Ester (Ellen Corby). Added to this numerous collection of distinctive individuals was a large cast of vibrantly colorful and richly developed supporting characters.
While critics of The Waltons have accused the show of being "sugarcoated" and unrealistic, a glance at some of the thematic content might prove otherwise. Among the issues and events that were dealt with in the series were rural poverty, bigotry, the Hindenburg disaster, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death of a family member, draft evasion and, of course, the human cost of war. Richard Thomas, reflecting on this popular misconception in a 1995 interview said, "One of the common errors in describing the show is that it was all so nice, everyone was nice. It's just not true. Everyone in the show could be foolish, everyone was hotheaded. John-Boy was always confronting people … It was not this very sweet little family."
The family's unifying force, however, and perhaps the focal point of the show's broad demographic appeal, was that family members always maintained a high level of respect for one other, finding genuine joy in living while nevertheless working out the internal and external conflicts that defined their daily lives on Walton's Mountain. Perhaps, too, The Waltons fulfilled a desire in post-1960s America to return to a simpler time when families still ate supper together at the kitchen table, the General Merchandise was the social and economic hub of a community, and, at the end of a hard but honest day, familiar voices in the darkness of a white clapboard farmhouse could be heard to say, "Good night, John-Boy."
"The Waltons Home Page." http://www.the-waltons.com. April 1999.
Hamner, Earl Jr. The Homecoming. New York, Random House, 1970.
Keets, Heather. "Good Night, Waltons." Entertainment Weekly. August 20, 1993, 76.