SPECIAL: Walton’s Mountain Revisited

Directing in the 70s was different. There were bookings, but most of them were chores. The days of a decade earlier of going from a great script on TWILIGHT ZONE to another on DR. KILDARE and then on to a ROUTE 66, a NAKED CITY, an EASTSIDE WESTSIDE, THE FUGITIVE, a BREAKING POINT were gone. And then I was booked to direct an episode in the second season of a hit series the previous season, THE WALTONS.

Television had changed. Programs were more action driven, more intent on exciting viewers than in probing the human psyche. Earl Hamner had revisited the family (his) that he had written about so sensitively in SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN, now renamed Walton’s Mountain. His stories were studies in human behavior, and unlike most frenetic programming of the time, the pacing of the productions was leisurely.

There was his original made-for-television movie, THE HOMECOMING, followed by 213 episodes in 9 seasons, and finally 6 more made-for- television movies. That was a remarkable achievement. For me THE WALTONS was a creative oasis, a fact I discovered within the first couple of days of my prep period. Early in my script, THE CHICKEN THIEF, there was a very short sequence in Ike’s store …

I thought it was charming, but the author of the script hadn’t pursued it. I thought it could have a follow-up. I went to Earl’s office (and remember I was still the new kid on the block) and presented my thoughts. I didn’t tell him what should happen, just that I thought something could. The following day Earl presented me with an added scene he had written.

I was impressed with Earl’s willingness to move forward with my idea and totally delighted with what came off of his typewriter. That accommodation would not have happened in every producer’s office, but that was Earl Hamner. With all of the restrictions imposed by the budget limitations of television, he was relentless in his pursuit of quality in the scripts he provided for his directors. There was an extra step taken to arrive at that high quality, a step I never found taken on any other series I directed. Two or three days prior to the beginning of photography, the five adults in the cast (Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, Michael Learned, Will Geer and Ellen Corby) would assemble in producer Robert Jacks’ office during a lunch-hour. A tray of sandwiches was ordered at the Jewish Delicatessen, owned and operated by Chinese, just down the street in Toluca Lake. With Earl and story editor Carol McKeand present, the script was read aloud by the five actors, after which a discussion was held. Any objections the actors might have had were voiced; any ideas for something new to be added were listened to. It was a way of adding texture to already rich scripts and a deterrent to possible future rewriting on the set. The readings gave Earl a chance to HEAR the spoken words of dialogue, because there is a difference between reading dialogue on the printed page and hearing it aloud.

The records show that Earl wrote only 4 episodes for THE WALTONS. That means that only 4 times did the credits on the screen of an episode read Writen by Earl Hamner. But his fingerprints were there on EVERY script. There is no doubt he influenced writers during their scripts’ plotting and planning, and when final scripts were turned in, Earl would make changes, mostly in the dialogue. It was said he was Waltonizing them.

I didn’t get to direct any one of the above-mentioned 4 Earl Hamner-written scripts, but in the 6th season I did direct a Walton script written by Earl. It was THE WARRIOR, a fascinating story about a 101-year-old Indian who returns to Walton’s Mountain, searching for the burial ground of his Cherokee tribe. He finds it is under the Walton barn. Who does the land belong to? It was written by a relative of someone in the upper echelon of Lorimar Productions, and it was not well written. I was not the only one who felt that way, but happily Earl said he would do the rewrite. The next three or four days I went every morning to his home and spent the day there as he totally rewrote the script from the opening to the final good-nights. It was a beautifully written script, and I was excited and eager to film it. But then outrageous circumstances concerning casting occurred, which I will not go into here, but which I describe in vivid detail on my post for THE WARRIOR. The role of the old warrior was a demanding one, and it was unfortunate that the actor already cast did not play it and that for the actor playing it, the role was beyond his experience and capability. For me only one scene (with thanks to the amazing 12-year old Kami Cotler) fulfilled the potential of Earl’s poignant and poetic dialogue.

For the 3rd season of THE WALTONS, I was assigned to direct THE CONFLICT, a two-hour epic that would open the season. The conflict was between the United States government and Martha Corinne Walton, Grandpa Walton’s sister-in-law. A highway was planned through the mountains that would necessitate Martha Corinne’s giving up and moving off her property. When I received the script, I had only one reservation, but it was major. At the close of the story, the government relented and allowed her to remain on her property. I went to Earl and said it wouldn’t have happened that way. The federal government wasn’t making those accommodations, and more importantly I thought we were missing an opportunity for a more emotionally powerful close to our story. Again Earl rewrote, this time two major sequences. The final scene that he wrote so superbly and poetically is one of my all-time favorites. I contributed this bit of information to his book, GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, but with his usual modesty he eliminated the fact that he wrote the closing scenes..

Those words! And Bondi!

Another amazing fact! Earl stayed with the series for its entire 9 year run. You might ask, “Well don’t all creators of series do that?” No, they don’t. Many of them get their series launched, and then they turn them over to someone else to produce as they move on to create another project. Earl’s remaining to oversee was why the high excellence of the series was maintained, and why over 40 years later I received the following comments on my posts for THE WALTONS:

I have watched the Walton’s ever since they first aired. My Dad was the one who made it a family affair to sit and watch it every Thursday night ….I still watch it today and I am 57 years old.

I grew up with The Waltons and now my children are enjoying this wonderful series.

I grew up without grandparents in my life (or aunts and uncles) and watching The Waltons makes me feel both sad at not knowing grandparents and happy at having experienced them vicariously.

I still watch The Waltons every day. I loved it as a kid but I appreciate it even more now.

I was about Erin’s age and the Walton’s were my extended family as I am sure many others also felt.

I had a difficult childhood but always found escape during an episode. No matter how poor the family was, or how tough things got, they always got through it and I used to imagine my life like that as well.

There is another side to this picture. In the mid-80s when I was twice as old as the 30 years the film industry considered as the cut-off point for a person’s ability to be creative, I had to produce a demo reel for submission to producers considering hiring me to direct. I included on that reel 3 or 4 of the best scenes from my episodes of THE WALTONS. Shortly after I turned it over to my agents, I received a request from them to redo the reel excluding the Walton scenes. Their explanation: those scenes were weak and soft. Obviously that was not the public’s reaction to the series.

I wish they made shows like that again.

If Earl Hamner had done nothing else, THE WALTONS is a legacy, truly an unusual legacy that may last forever. It is a chronicle of a large family of 11, ranging in age from the youngest Elizabeth to Grandpa Walton. It is a chronicle, sensitively presented of the problems of surviving the difficult Depression. And I think it is the most complete and definitive portrait of a young boy crossing the threshold into manhood that has ever been recorded on film. Earl wrote prose, but he was a poet – a poet of the spirit.

Earl Hamner passed away last Thursday, March 24, 2016.

Goodnight Earl-Boy

The journey continues

This entry was posted in The Waltons. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to SPECIAL: Walton’s Mountain Revisited

  1. Jim says:

    A very heart-felt and touching tribute Ralph. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Nancy Sentipal says:

    Beautiful article. Thank you for sharing your insider’s view of Earl Hamner’s writing. The scene you talk about at the end of The Conflict, is probably one of the most poignant and eloquent scenes in the entire series. The words and Beulah Bondi’s delivery of them was superb. I love that episode because it so accurately portrays the heartbreak of families who were asked to move in order to make way for Shenandoah National Park. Living in VA, that history is well known and still affects families who’s older generations were asked to move off the mountains. Earl would have known that history too.

  3. Kim Messick says:

    Ralph, just a quick note to thank you for this wonderful blog. It is an invaluable resource for insights into the history of television, the directoral process, and (not to be too high-falutin’) some great gossip about the actors, producers, and crew you’ve worked with over the years. For someone like me, who deals mostly in words, it has been especially interesting to read about the ways in which you take a scene as written and turn it into a filmed shot— a visual experience.

    Could I ask if you ever worked with James Garner? I’m writing a piece now about “The Rockford Files” and wonder if you might have any impressions to share about the actor or the series.

    Thanks and please keep up the great work!

    • Ralph says:

      KIm, let me start by answering your question. No, I never worked with James Garner, an actor I hold in the highest esteem. I think his performance in VICTOR, VICTORIA actually outshines the superb ones of Julie Andrews and Robert Preston. They had most of the words and all of the songs. He just had his facial reactions. And good luck on your book. I will look forward to reading it.

      • Kim Messick says:

        Ralph, thanks so much for your very prompt reply. Your kind words about Garner chime with pretty much everything I’ve been able to learn about him, as an actor and a man. Everyone who knew him seems to have loved him.

        Just a quick clarification: the Garner piece is actually an article, not a book. Essentially it’s an extension of a piece I wrote not long after his death in 2014. You can find it on the internet under the title “In Praise of James Garner” if you should have any interest in reading it.

        Again, thanks for this great blog. I look forward to reading many future posts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *