Thursday, September 20, 2012

TV in 1972: “The Waltons”

TV Guide actually thought the CBS television network was taking a bit of a gamble when it introduced The Waltons to its Thursday prime-time lineup on September 14, 1972. “[I]t is attempting warm, homespun family drama in a medium that generally likes its families to be wacky and its dramas to be action-packed,” read that magazine’s preview of the new hour-long show (see below). Well, the mag could hardly have been more wrong in that assessment. Indeed, during the first half-dozen seasons of The Waltons’ nine-year run, it always found a spot among the top 20 among
Nielsen-rated programs; and during the 1973-1974 season, it won second place, right behind the much less endearing All in the Family.

The Waltons was based on a 1961 novel called Spencer’s Mountain, by TV writer-producer Earl Hamner Jr. That book had already been made into a rather controversial, 1963 big-screen film of the same name starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara, and James MacArthur. But Hamner believed the basic story concept--which drew on his own family’s past--had stronger legs than that. CBS agreed, and in December 1971 it aired a pilot for this show titled The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. That movie featured a few performers who’d later appear in the weekly series (including Richard Thomas as the oldest son, aspiring writer John Walton Jr., aka “John-Boy”), but it starred Patricia Neal as the Waltons matriarch and Andrew Duggan as her husband. (Those roles would later be reassigned to Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, respectively.)

Set in a fictitious Virginia county during the Great Depression and World War II, The Waltons was unquestionably possessed of a homespun charm, right down to its main title sequence (the original version of which can be seen here) and its regular concluding scene, in which members of the cast--in voice-overs only--remarked on aspects of the preceding episode before they bid each other a fond good night. There was a great deal of old-fashioned respect accorded to the elder members of the Walton clan, though the series wasn’t without brief clashes between generations. And the Waltons--originally seven children, two parents, and a couple of grandparents descended from pioneer stock--showed themselves to be important, sometimes even inspirational players in the life of the surrounding community, which was made up of generally deprived but demonstrably sturdy citizens.

I was pretty young when The Waltons debuted, and I had a bias even then toward crime dramas such as Ironside, Search, The Rookies, and of course those contained beneath the “umbrella title” of The NBC Mystery Movie. However, The Waltons usually won my attention early on Thursday evenings. Its rural, historical backdrop and cohesive familial connections were so different from my own urban upbringing. Like John-Boy, I was interested in a life of the mind and the magic of words. I developed a crush on the freckle-faced actress, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, who played daughter Erin Walton. And I found Will Geer, the veteran performer who starred as Grandpa Zebulon Walton, to be a welcome fount of good humor and delight, much like my own grandfather. When, probably in 1977, I stumbled across Geer wandering the hallways of my college student union building in Portland, Oregon (he was apparently visiting a relative there, though I never did find out who that relative was), I couldn’t help but request that he pose for a photo with me, which he gladly did.

The Waltons was finally cancelled in 1981. Yet it generated several subsequent TV movie sequels that I vaguely recall watching--even though I was no longer so young and impressionable as I’d been, and even though a pretty girl with freckles might by then have had a tougher time turning my head and sparking my heart.

Right-click on the image below for an enlargement.

READ MORE:M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and the Defining of an Era,” by Brenda N. (Mid-Continent Public Library).

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