Grandma Comes Home

FILMED February 1978

Ellen Corby had suffered a serious stroke sometime after we had worked together on THE PONY CART in October, 1976. When I reported to begin prep on GRANDMA COMES HOME, I was told that as an amnesiac aphasic. she had been in intense therapy to regain her speech for over a year. I was well acquainted with the subject of aphasia. In 1962 when I directed HASTING’S FAREWELL on DR. KILDARE, the authors of the script and I visited the aphasia unit at the Long Beach Naval Hospital and incorporated in our production a great deal of the information we learned.

A welcome change had been made in the opening format of the show. No longer were dramatic highlights excerpted to tease the audience. The story now began where it should: at the beginning.

By now it should come as no surprise that I had some reservations about the script. I thought the first act was static and uneventful, that the story didn’t get under way until Grandma’s arrival, and that didn’t happen until the end of Act One. I envisioned Act One starting with Grandma’s arrival, just as Martha Corinne’s arrival occurred at the beginning of Act One in THE PONY CART. A script conference meeting was held with Earl Hamner, producer Andy White, authors Rod and Claire Peterson and me. I met with resistance, mostly from Rod, for every cut that I suggested. By the time I reached the scene where Grandma finally arrived, without having any success, I blurted out, “Well we’d better find something to cut because the first thirteen pages are just (expletive) dull.” Claire, with an amused smile said, “Well that’s pretty definite.” A fairly stormy story conference provided some needed script cuts, and later in the editing room further tightening occurred. And I admit now that I was wrong to want to start the show with Grandma’s return. Her return was an event; it was a theatrical entrance that needed to be set up. And it was a double event. Not only was Grandma returning to Walton’s Mountain, Ellen Corby was returning to THE WALTONS.

Ellen was scheduled very carefully, spreading her work out over the span of the shooting schedule so she would not be overworked and overtired on any one day. The show was given a seven day shooting schedule, and they also allowed me to have two cameras whenever I felt I could use them to advantage, thus cutting down on the number of times she would have to play a scene.

There were two identical Walton porches: the one on the exterior of the house on the back lot and a duplicate porch as a part of the interior of the house on the soundstage. Scenes involving the porch and the surrounding grounds were filmed on the backlot; scenes involving action on the porch and the living room were filmed on the soundstage. When a scene involved neither it was usually filmed on the soundstage. Sometimes a scene would incorporate shots filmed on both porches.

I was not sure before filming commenced what it would be like communicating with Ellen, since she could not speak. I don’t know even now what her preparation at home had been. How much did she understand of what she was going to have to do? Before each scene I would carefully explain what the scene was about and what her reaction was to be. I could see she was intense in her concentration as I spoke, but not until the camera rolled did I realize how completely she had comprehended; that she was the perfect example of how important it is for an actor in a scene to LISTEN.

When I posted GRANDMA COMES HOME on my blog in December, 2009, the following comment was left by a viewer:

Ralph, I remember this episode vividly, although I only saw it only once, thirty years ago. At the time I didn’t know about Miss Corby’s condition, but guessed that she was being greatly challenged by what she had to do. Reading your blog, I now see that EVERYONE was challenged by this story, for various reasons.

It was fascinating to revisit the subject of aphasia from a different perspective. In the DR. KILDARE production Harry Guardino had to act not being able to speak. Here Ellen, who really couldn’t speak, had to struggle to speak. I think the amazing thing that in their struggles to speak, how similar their performances.

The young actors were just great in their relationship to Ellen and that affected their performances. Note the way sixteen-year old David Harper (Jim-Bob) takes her from the porch to the car.

Things had changed from the early days of DR. KILDARE, THE FUGITIVE and BREAKING POINT when there was a single plot line to a story. With the advent of larger casts of running characters double plot lines were used to utilize the many actors in the cast. I didn’t mind it when the two plots would collide like they did in THE FIRE STORM when John-Boy’s publishing an article about Mein Kampf and Erin’s entering the local beauty contest created an emotional climax. I had some reservations about Elizabeth’s adventure raising a pig, but it did resolve in a touching way.

And now we come to THE BIG SCENE. At this point in the story, in the first draft of the script, Grandma spelled out in some sugar that had spilled on the table the words “needs me.” Without any intervention by me that scene was very quickly replaced by a scene between Grandma and Olivia, and I was very heavily involved in getting that scene rewritten.

Michael told me that in that scene she had to keep herself from responding to Ellen’s performance. She had to play the scene technically, not organically; she knew if she allowed herself to respond to Ellen, she would have been devastated.

I think that was the first time (and very possibly the last) that the final fadeout was not the exterior of the house as the lights went out, that the final shot was of Ellen after she said, “Good night, everyone.” That was done in the final editing and I very strongly feel that it was probably the work of Gene Fowler, the supervising film editor.

Ellen was nominated for an Emmy for this performance. She didn’t win. (She already had three of them at home on her mantle.) How this performance came out of her in the condition she was in was truly a miracle. What she should have won was an award for a Profile in Courage.

When we finished the final shot, I filmed a promotional of Will talking about Ellen’s return. As we finished that, we said our goodbyes. I hugged Will and thanked him. He, referring to the fracas over the Indian casting for THE WARRIOR and with a twinkle in his eye, said, “So you’ve finally forgiven me.” And I, with a twinkle in my eye, said, “Not entirely, Will, not entirely.” Those were our final words to each other. Will died two months and five days later.

The journey continues

(The film clip of me is from a recent interview by the Archive of American Television,
a division of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation.)

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20 Responses to Grandma Comes Home

  1. John Dayton says:

    My memories of this, as The Pony Cart, are clear and vivid — the first day Ellen reported for work I noticed a brightness to her, almost a glow. Her friend Stella was with her. Stella said they had worked on the script at home. Now that I watch this all these years later, I see a parallel between what Ellen was experiencing in her real life, and what she had experienced, would experience again, on the show. Stella wouldn’t leave Ellen alone to do her work. I could clearly see Ellen didn’t like that. She was back. Time to go to work.

    Whenever she was able, Ellen distanced herself from Stella on the set. Stella told me she was protecting Ellen. “From what?”, I said. I don’t think Stella ever forgave me for that comment.

    From the get-go it was clear that Ellen understood every word she heard, but simply could not respond in kind. I often think today how frustrating that must be.

    A little back story on Ellen’s stroke:

    Ellen had had her stroke during the prior season.
    On the Friday morning (prior to her stroke) Ellen arrived on the set with script changes in hand and was handing them out to the cast – the scene was a fairly complicated one in the kitchen. Being young and never having dealt with an actor handing out changes, I didn’t realize the ramifications. This was definitely a “no-no”.

    Someone tipped off producer Andy White and he came to the stage. He was livid. Unfortunately, he reprimanded Ellen on set, in front of the cast and crew. (Andy was a good producer, a soft-spoken, lovely man, so it surprised me. Perhaps there was a prior challenge of the script by Ellen, I never found out)

    Ellen cried. (ironically that worked as she was peeling onions in the scene).

    Ellen was humiliated and did not speak to any of the crew or, I think, cast the balance of the day. She was as livid, if not more so, than Andy. I was concerned. Ellen was tense, and very red-faced the balance of the day.

    When Ellen came to my desk to sign out, she knocked my coffee over and it soaked my paperwork. I said, “I hope you’re not angry at me.” and she tapped the top of my hand and said, “I’m not. Don’t worry.” I told her I’d phone her later with her call time for the following Monday. I phoned her later that night. She seemed to be fine.

    The following Monday morning she did not show up for work. Ellen was always on time, in fact she usually reported early. I phoned her home several times. No answer. Will was upset and marched up to Earl’s office toward the front of the lot. Earl and Will drove off in a flash. They found Ellen on the steps to her basement. No one knows how long she was there.

    The news Ellen had had a stroke reached the set before Will and Earl returned. What to do? Scenes were re-arranged and the days work saved, but everyone was hit hard by the news of Ellen’s injury.

    I was instructed by Production Manager Neil Maffeo to “white-out” Ellen’s name from the call sheet that afternoon. I asked why – he said it was for “insurance purposes”. I whited Ellen’s name out, but did not renumber the cast list. Someone told Earl whatt I’d done. Earl called the stage and chewed me out, boy was he angry! I’d never heard Earl raise his voice before. It honestly scared me. I told Earl I was simply following Neil’s instructions. That didn’t help. Earl said Ellen was not to be treated that way – and how did anyone know she wasn’t going to return?

    This, then, made her return the next year all the more glorious.

    I was never a part of the creative decision making, however, I knew Rod and Claire very well, and I also knew that the company (Lorimar) and the network (CBS) initially resisted Ellen’s return, insisting her work would take too long to complete.i

    In addition to the “green bean scene”, I will never, ever forget filming the scene on the front porch with Ellen and Will — two cameras — Ralph, you in direct contact with Ellen. You cleared the set of all non-essential crew, but permitted me to stay. Thank you. It made a deep impression.

    When Ellen said “You old fool” there wasn’t a dry eye in the crew — we kept rolling – I saw you, Ralph, were very moved. Someone, I think it was me, said “Is anyone going to say ‘Cut’?

    What a brilliant performance from Ellen, beautiful words from Rod and Claire — and brilliant directing.

    Thank the Lord the results have been preserved.

  2. John Dayton says:

    I often times look back and hope I’ve done history justice. My memories are, perhaps, gilded with the gold of youth – to be honest I don’t think so. In my position I had a hardline look at the day-to-day and it was terrific. It is, I guess, the “Welles Syndrome” – we experience the best when we are young – and what we do – where we go from there – can be only downward. I struggle with that, yet hope another “Waltons” and Senensky will come along.

    • Ralph Senensky says:

      John, do you realize that you have a gift as a writer? With the comments you have been leaving, I am thinking you could write a fine chronicle from your position as a production assistant on THE WALTONS.

  3. Mar says:

    What strikes me, rewatching those later episodes, after Ellen returned (like most-everyone else, I’d seen them all as a teenager in the ’70s when they first aired), is how amazing it was that Ellen, unable to speak, still manages to craete such a compelling character, how she makes Grandma real, and how she squeezes every last ounce of emotion out of the scenes (the “green bean” scene with Olivia still has me in tears when I see it), almost entirely without words, but rather with facial expressions and gestures. It takes one hell of an actress to pull that off.

    • Ralph says:

      More than that, it took it took one hell of a person with gargantuan fortitude. I know. I was there!

    • Kyle says:

      Wasn’t she amazing? I remember the episode where the Walton boys march off to war. The expression on her face as she and John watch them leave just said it all – she needed no words.

      Unfortunately, I felt that after Ellen Corby returned, the writing frequently failed her. Grandma had always been a salty character, but after she came back, they sweetened her and I thought that was a bit of a shame. I loved those rare later episodes where she was still her old feisty self, despite her limited speech, such as “The Moonshiner”. Ellen Corby certainly had the talent to pull it off, even without words.

      • John Dayton says:

        Two years later after coming back to this page I am reading the comments in full. Kyle, I think I have an answer for you about the changed “Grandma”.
        I do believe Rod and Claire and Earl were conscious of the fact that strokes change the lives of those afflicted by them. In this case we see this change in “Grandma” a softening of sorts. Strokes, I’m sure, tend to humble the victim — certainly it changes their outlook on life, and the lives of those who surround them

  4. Phil says:

    I was clicking the remote at my parents’ house last Sunday when I came across ‘The Waltons’ on the INSP channel. It was about 25 minutes past the hour and Ellen Corby was hobbling around with a cane. I said to my Dad, “Hey, I think this might be one of Ralph’s episodes, let’s keep watching it.” Then we went to your site later to watch it all from the beginning. So, my Dad knew Ellen would whack Will with the broom and still laughed again!

    Given Ellen’s condition, were there any sound issues that needed addressing during the filming or in post-production?

    I also caught a little of a one-hour documentary on ‘The Waltons’ on INSP recently. One of the Walton kids said Ellen Corby began her Hollywood career as a script girl/script supervisor, so she didn’t deviate from the script. In contrast, Will Geer was different on every take, which added some extra spice to their scenes together.

    I’m glad Kami got some extended scenes in this one and ‘The Warrior’. The freeze frame in the opening credits of her face-to-face with the cow is priceless. She’s my favorite Walton.

    • Ralph says:

      Yes it’s true, Ellen began her Hollywood career as a script supervisor. And no, there were absolutely no sound issue problems in post-production. Ellen was nominated for another Emmy for her performance in GRANDMA COMES HOME. She didn’t win. She should have been awarded a Profile in Courage.

  5. Jim says:

    Mr Senensky,

    Just finished reading all your Walton’s posts – just absolutely great info and insight into this series. I watched the Walton’s off and on during it’s run – it pains me to say it now but as a young high school and college student, it was more likely I was watching the Dukes of Hazard……. And I agree that the series lost much of its energy when Richard Thomas left – he was just such a good actor and so believable in the role of John Boy. Another actor like Robert Lansing and Vic Morrow that irrespective if he was the focus of the scene, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

    The other aspect of your posts that comes through was your special friendship with Beulah Bondi. It was very touching to read.

  6. Jeff Lemon says:

    I’ve been fascinated to read this because, even though the ‘green bean’ scene stands as a high point in television for me, I’ve never been able to find anything written about it — until now! What an acting triumph for Ellen Corby and Michael Learned. I’m so glad for the effort went into rewrites if this was the result! It’s even more poignant to realize that it was Will Geer’s last moment as well. I hope you are well, Mr. Senensky. Thank you so much!

  7. John Dayton says:

    I was just a P.A. but with added responsibilties which would not happen today due to Directors Guild limitations. I was the sole P.A. and to my knowledge the first, that Lorimar employed — today you’ll see 7 or more on set. I try to overcome the “Welles Syndrome” — the best moments of my career were on the set of “The Waltons” — and I’ve been looking for the same moments in this industry during my career — alas they have not been repeated.

    In regards to the “green bean scene” yes, I was there for the filming and even then was deeply touched by it. I recall saying to Michael that her performance would touch millions, and when the scene was put together, indeed she and Ellen were extraordinary. At lunch with Michael recently she said she never forgot those words. I’m glad I had the courage to say what was in my heart — oh, to be young and brave again!

    • Ralph says:

      I wish I had been at that lunch with you and Michael. I wonder now if I ever expressed to Michael what I felt about her performance — not only in that scene but in all of the scenes in the 12 episodes I directed. I’m afraid I didn’t. The pace at which we worked seemed to preclude doing that. There was always the rush to get to the next scene. Richard’s John-Boy was the center of attention, and Ellen Corby’s Grandma was the pepper to spice up things. But I considered Michael’s Olivia to be the glue for the family. I was aware that Michael was not happy when she was at times included in scenes where she had little dialogue. But if the camera singled her out for a close-up, her silent reaction ALWAYS contributed to the scene. The season when she was away, Olivia’s absence was as detrimental to the series as Richard’s leaving.

  8. Larissa S says:

    I’m really thrilled to read through your posts on each episode of my favorite series of all time. Especially this one because it’s my favorite of the entire show. The real care that the actors show for each comes through the screen. I love the life lessons of this one. Thank you for helping create the most fabulous show.

  9. Becky says:

    My husband and I watched the Waltons in the seventies and watch them most every night now. The series is timeless and the values will never go “out of style”. Although we know most of the shows, still they are so relevant to today’s need for positive ethics. Each actor and actress played their parts so well. There don’t seem to be any shoes like it now.

  10. Sal Vaccarino says:

    The scene between Ellen Corby and Will Geer on the porch near the end of this iconic episode should be shown and discussed in every acting class in america.

  11. Rob R says:

    This is one of the great episodes in all of television and definitely affected my life. As my own mother is now elderly, I am keenly aware that she wants to be needed, just like Grandma in this episode. I know this episode is what sensitized me, as a teenager, to how the elderly feel about their lives. I hope the talented people responsible for writing this, directing it, producing it, and acting in it, realize and appreciate how the impact can be lifelong.

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