Fans of The Waltons have complicated feelings about Maude Gormley
Character actor Merie Earle didn't start acting until she was 77. The Waltons became her biggest TV role.
The first time Maude Gormley appears on The Waltons, she’s singing sweetly and reviving regional folksongs in "The Minstrel."
Performed by character actor Merie Earle, Maude Gormley shows up on the mountain 15 times throughout the show’s run, sometimes helping out at church by making coconut cream pie, other times bestowing gifts upon her neighbors, like that time she gave the Waltons a goat.
She was a sweet old lady who was played by a sweet old lady, so it may surprise you to learn that fans of The Waltons seem positively divided over the mostly innocuous recurring character.
In a Waltons forum, fans have recently debated whether Maude Gormley was "cute" or "irritating," and one fan felt so passionately that they left a comment on IMDb, proclaiming uncharitably that "The Minstrel" was the "first regrettable appearance of Maude Gormley, who would go on to irritate viewers for 14 more episodes."
For actor Merie Earle, who didn’t get her start as an actor until the age of 77, playing Maude Gormley was a highlight of her career. And you can be sure she didn’t care a lick what anyone else thought of the character.
Throughout most of Merie’s life, she was a housewife, but TheL.A. Times reported in 1984 that Earle said that even when doing chores around the house, "I had always been a ham."
So when her husband retired from his career as a train engineer, they moved to L.A., and Earle started acting then — not in any major movies, though. Like her character Maude, she was simply donating her time to her church, performing in a church play.
It happened that a talent agent’s son was also in the church play, and that’s how Earle got scouted and signed, originally working as a model for Polaroid.
In the late Sixties, Earle began appearing on TV in a recurring role on Green Acres and in minor roles on hit shows like Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Bonanza. Through this work, Earle developed a reputation for professionalism and even garnered the nickname "one-take Merie" because her delivery of lines was positively flawless.
In the Seventies, she remained in highly visible TV roles, first cast as Maude Gormley on The Waltons and then cast as "the world’s oldest candystriper" on The Bob Newhart Show.
She did all this without one bit of formal acting training, and when she went into auditions, she said she was always surrounded by veteran character actors who she said found her rather unimpressive.
"They’re old-timers in show business, so they just kind of snort and recite all their Broadway credits and film credits and things like that," Earle told The Robesian in 1972. "That doesn’t bother me, though, and sometimes I even beat them out for the parts. But if I don’t, that doesn’t bother me too much either. It doesn’t take much money for me to live, anyway."
Whether The Waltons fans loved or hated Maude Gormley didn’t really matter, either, because Earle had proven herself as a stand-out in a sea of talented veteran actors.
She continued acting on hit shows until she passed away in 1984 at the age of 95. When she first started acting just 18 years before, she felt "really lucky that I don’t look any older than I do."
To her, acting just came naturally at any age. When asked about her acting style, Earle insisted she was never acting at all.
"Oh dear, I guess I don’t have any [acting style]," Earle said. "All I try to do is just to be myself."