Michael Learned is one of television’s longest running mothers starring as family matriarch Olivia Walton in beloved TV series The Waltons. The theme of family is important both on and off screen for Learned as we discovered in an exclusive interview with Grandparents NZ.
Born in Washington D.C. Learned was the oldest of six girls. At the age of eleven, the family moved to a small village in Austria called St. Gilgen. Her father worked for the OSS (which later became known as the CIA), this was 11 years after the depression (in which The Waltons was set) and 5 years after the end of the war. Learned remembers it clearly. “…they were short because I was an American where I had good food and vitamins whereas these people were malnourished. We went to Italy and saw where things were bombed. It opened my heart and mind to other people’s suffering. I was very aware of it even at the time. I became a very close friend with a girl who was 19 and I was only 11. We looked like we were the same age compared to the kids my age. Many didn’t have older brothers or fathers. I remember once we stopped at a swimming hole in Italy an there was a leg lying on the river bank. He had his fake leg. I got used to it.”
Learned then attended the The Arts Educational School in Hertfordshire, England where her dream was to become a prima ballerina. Learned is incredibly open and honest about her experiences. “I went to ballet class when I was 9. It was wonderful training, I was homesick but I look back and think how lucky I was to train so early.”
Returning to the USA at the age of 17, Learned married Peter Donat and had 3 sons – Caleb, Christopher and Lucas. As her marriage was breaking up she landed the role of Olivia Walton on The Waltons “I was so lucky. I got tailed along on Peter Donat’s coat strings. When he was invited to be the leading man at ACT (American Conservatory Theater) in San Francisco they made me an offer to sweeten the pot for him. So they offered me under study roles then I got leading roles. Then we were leading man and lady in those years. I came to LA to look around and got offered The Waltons. I was so grateful. I split with my husband who I actually loved, it was a very emotional and stressful time so that show coming along financially was a great blessing.”
Learned recognises those who supported her. “I wasn’t always appreciative at the time. I look back with enormous gratitude. A lot of very talent people come to LA and never catch a break. I caught a break in 2 weeks which was lucky. Ethel Winant head of casting for CBS would come to San Francisco to see plays. She went it to bat for me, she never told me. I am eternally grateful for her… She was my angel.”
Winning 3 Emmys for her role as Olivia Walton (4 in total, the 4th for Nurse), Learned reflects in her characteristically honest way of course with family at the forefront of her mind “It is a huge thrill. Especially the first time. I had no idea. I was sitting there having the time of my life. My son Chris was my date with his braces and rented tuxedo. Then they called my name and I didn’t realise. I had no inkling that I would be considered, it was beyond thrilling. I called home and my kids were jumping around screaming. It’s nice to win.”
Talent runs in the family and like any proud grandparent, Learned loves to talk about her grandchildren. With 5 in total mixed between 2 families Learned and Donat from whom Learned split and John Doherty (Learned’s husband) and Helen Reddy, it is no surprise they all show a creative side. Learned’s eldest granddaughter Aleta Soron began acting in high school and is due to graduate in June from the BFA Acting Program at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Preforming Arts. So what is Learned’s advice to Aleta? “To follow her dream, follow her passion. You never know as a young student where it’s going to lead you. She studies editing as well as acting. She is also a very good writer. Who knows where she is going to wind up. I’m not bragging but she is a very good actress.”
The cast of The Waltons recently celebrated their 45th anniversary of the hit series. Running for a decade, this made Learned one of the longest serving TV Mum’s in the role of Olivia Walton, beating Shirley Partridge (The Partridge Family) by 6 years, Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch) by 4 years and even Caroline Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie) by 1 year. Learned reflects on her time on set.
“I gained a second family. Kami (Cotler) and I were just texting each other on Facebook with how lucky we feel. I am married to a man so I have 3 families. The kids spent more time with Ralph (Waite) and me than at home.” The kids would work 10 hours with scenes filmed in the morning before school would take place in the afternoon. The adults worked 12 or more hours a day. “I was jealous of them (the kids) to tell you the truth… The kids were always professional, sweet and dear. I had a hard time, I was tired, I had kids of my own.”
In recent years, Learned has had guest appearances on various TV series including Murder, She Wrote, Cold Case, Scrubs, Law and Order: SVU, All My Children and General Hospital. “Well I have more fun now when I’m on a set. I’m not carrying a show. I go in as a guest.” Although she enjoys television, theatre is her real passion. “I love words. I think gosh I am so lucky I am able to sit and hear these words and use these words… When I was young I remember sitting at ACT listening to Dylan Thomas and think gosh am I lucky to be able to hear this?!”
Although Learned enjoys what she does, she has always put her family first. “The only thing I turned down years ago was a movie… I had to run down the beach topless. I thought am the mother of 3 boys, I am not going to subject them to that. I turned others down that I probably shouldn’t have but when I had time I preferred to be at home with the kids.”
Learned clearly enjoys working as she hasn’t stopped. In January this year opening the stage production of Driving Miss Daisy and also recently starring in the short film Second Acts. “I love working, it’s much more interesting that house work let me tell you. It’s rest for me. I’m going to do a reading on Wednesday, a little staged reading at Rubicon Theatre by the beach. This summer I am going to do a comedy in Kansas for 6 weeks.”
Although still working and still enjoying it, The Waltons has a special place in Learned’s heart. “It’s the last day on The Waltons and I am crying. I was the one who chose to leave. I didn’t realise it would have such an impact. Lucky we are still so close, we connect all time”
You can catch The Waltons reunion movies over the next 4 weeks on JONES!
- A Walton’s Day For Thanks (1982) Tuesday 24th May – 8.35pm
- A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (1993) Tuesday 28th May – 8.35pm
- A Walton Wedding (1995) Tuesday 4th June – 8.35pm
- A Walton Easter (1997) Tuesday 11th June – 8.35pm