Earl Hamner Jr. wanted family shows to have a place in television
Hamner Jr. wanted to share his family with the world, and he wanted other writers to share their stories, too.
Image credit: The Everett Collection
Television in the 1970s used to be one giant lineup of mega-hits which included Happy Days, The Muppets, Taxi, M*A*S*H, Charlie's Angels and more. No matter what station you landed on in the '70s, you were sure to find something interesting, strange or unusual.
The Waltons (1972) was one of those mega-hits, but the show wasn't expected to be in the lead with such other elite series.
There is no question that in television, both in the '70s and today, violence and sex appeal sells. But does more than six family members living in the same small town have the same effect on a viewer as a show like M*A*S*H did?
According to a 1980 interview with Kingsport Times-News, in all of television's primetime hours, only three dramatic series were devoted to serious stories based on family drama — The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie and Eight is Enough.
Earl Hamner Jr. was the creator of The Waltons, which was based on real accounts of his own life in rural Virginia. Hamner Jr. said he was at a loss to understand why there aren't more family shows competing with sitcoms and other adventure-dramas.
"There is room for many more family shows, both contemporary stories and those based on nostalgia," Hamner Jr. said. "There's a huge audience out there in America, but I suppose the networks believe they are giving people what they think they want."
The strength of the viewers' personal associations with the Waltons family allowed the show to succeed, even though some of the major members of the family disappeared within the first five years of The Waltons.
Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) died during production in 1978, Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton) suffered a stroke during season five and Michael Learned (Olivia Walton) quit during season eight. Even without these familiar favorites viewers would still tune in to check in on their favorite family members.
"Perhaps I tend to meet more Waltons fans than most people from Hollywood when I'm traveling," Hamner Jr. said. "But I'm very moved when strangers tell me they find some affirmation of their own lives and backgrounds in our show. And that very reaction to The Waltons is, I think, one of the reasons for our longevity. There's a lot of feeling in this country that the Walton home and family are apart of everybody's heritage."
Earl Hamner Jr. said that despite the changes within the Waltons family, the cast and crew never had to hype the show by adding characters, more than five family members are enough.
"The impact of historical and world events on Walton's Mountain reflects the experiences of millions of viewers," Hamner Jr. said. "It brings a special perspective to our characters and stories which audiences can relate to."
Hamner Jr. said that after 220 episodes there had been no depletion of the storylines because the characters were not static. In other words, the children keep growing.
"Viewers enjoy the old-timey verities that they think this country may have lost," Hamner Jr. said. "Watching our show is like a visit to grandma."
The Waltons was comfortable. It was familiar. The success of The Waltons was rooted in its ability to highlight the stories of millions of Americans in just one episode. People related to Hamner Jr.'s family, and they still do to this day.
"As executive script consultant, I have to exercise considerable caution," Hamner Jr. said. "The people in the show represent my mother and my sisters and my brother. I'm responsible for seeing that we follow the true directions of their lives."
Much like The Waltons, the American viewers had a lot more than they did in the '30s. Hamner Jr. said he was grateful for what he had: His Walton family and his real family which were basically the same cast of characters.