American television legend Miss Michael Learned shares some memories with Ireland’s Own readers


By David Flynn


Miss Michael Learned has clocked up four Emmy awards in her fifty year career making her one of the most successful actresses of US television. As Olivia Walton – ‘the mother’ in the smash-hit 1930s Depression era tv drama series, The Waltons, Michael was one of the most recognisable tv stars in the world in the ‘70s.
In recent times, she was found by a new generation of tv viewers through her starring role in the Netflix tv series, ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’.

‘The Waltons’ had a teatime slot on RTÉ throughout the 1970s, either Sunday or Tuesday evenings.
Michael Learned had many theatre credits to her name and did a few tv guest-roles before starring in ‘The Waltons’, replacing the Oscar winning actress, Patricia Neal, who had played the part of Olivia in the Christmas tv movie, ‘The Homecoming’, which was the series pilot episode.

“Patricia was a fantastic actress and became a great friend of mine, and she was so gracious about me playing the role,” Michael told Ireland’s Own. “I said to her when I first met her that I was grateful that she turned the series down, and she said back to me, ‘but I didn’t darling, they didn’t want me’!”

Patricia Neal had won an Oscar for her role in the movie ‘Hud’ co-starring with Paul Newman. She had a stroke in 1965, and, while she made a great recovery, The Waltons producers were unsure if her health would allow her to commit to a weekly television series.

Michael was 32 years old when she signed to play the mother of seven Waltons, some of them teenagers and she was particularly proud of the work she did in the early days of the series.
“I had three children when I got the part and I was going through a trying time in my own life, and I was divorcing their father,” she said. “I went down to LA on a whim and with God’s hand on my shoulder. I got the part with an element of luck.

“Ethel Winant, head of casting for CBS used to come to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where I was performing. She wrestled Fred Silverman to give me the part. He didn’t agree and he was probably right, because I wasn’t what they were looking for.”

Silverman was a major television executive, responsible for many of the biggest tv hits of the 1970s.
The Waltons was a surprise hit on the CBS network in Autumn 1972, when it came in at No. 19 in the ratings for the season.

“I suspect that CBS didn’t expect us to be a hit,” said Michael.
In the beginning, Michael was concerned about how to play Olivia and her portrayal turned out very different to Patricia Neal’s in ‘The Homecoming’.

“The difficult thing was Patricia had the guts to play her sternly, but the creator Earl Hamner and I talked about it, and I said do you think people are going to want to see Olivia so hard every week, so we had to soften her up just a little bit,” said Michael.

After filming began on The Waltons, Michael was billed as ‘Miss Michael Learned’, because of her first name being mostly used by males, and in case viewers wouldn’t understand the name.

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