Ma and Pa Walton quietly fell in love behind the scenes of the show

"We had a deep love."

Read to Me

The final appearance of Ralph Waite as John Walton Sr. on The Waltons comes in the final-season episode "The Move." It's an emotional episode, charged with feeling, and it finds John deciding to be the one to take Olivia to Arizona when tuberculosis threatens her health.

In the time that Waite had off before the final season of The Waltons, he said in an interview that he took time off to travel the country. He said that although he never considered himself to be a TV icon, he soon saw just how famous he'd become as the patriarch on the classic family show.

"Everywhere I went, people were just delighted and they just sort of came out to meet me, and I was treated like a big star," Waite said. When the series was casting the role of Pa Walton, however, the casting director Lee Rich said that Waite wasn't exactly perfect for the part.

"We were looking to cast The Waltons, and Ralph walked into my office," Rich said. "We'd gone through a lot of names. We couldn't come up with anybody, and Ralph walked into my office with a beard, and I looked at Ralph and said, 'Go home and shave the beard.'"

Obedient, Waite did as he was told to land the part.

"He went home and shaved the beard, and we showed him to CBS and we hired Ralph Waite," Rich said, laughing.

Series creator Earl Hamner Jr. said that the difficulty they had casting the role of John Walton was due in part to their decision to cast Michael Learned as Olivia Walton. Hamner explained, "Once we cast Michael Learned, we had to cast a man who would be approximate to her age."

"It was all a matter of matching," he noted.

Lucky for Waite, he looked just right partnered with Michael, and he'd also managed to impress Hamner with his work in a critically acclaimed movie of the era.

"Of course we'd seen [Waite] in Five Easy Pieces," Hamner said.

Finding talented actors was part of Hamner's vision. He said the strategy was to cast people they couldn't do without and then find the right actors to fill out the other roles around them. Hamner considers himself lucky in his casting of the whole Waltons family.

"They were good actors, and they all matched," Hamner said. "They all meshed. It was a well-oiled machine."

Hamner said the reason they meshed so well was that, behind the scenes, she and Ralph were working hard to make sure the kids felt a real family vibe, supported by their stage mother and father on and off set, both while the show was on the air and beyond.

"I know toward the end, Michael and Ralph, together they're stage mother and father, were very worried that the kids might be too distraught at the break-up of the stage family, and they took great pains to be certain that there would not be a break-up," Hamner said. "They were not going to leave them, and even to this day, there's still a family feeling."

Both Richard Thomas, who played son John-Boy, and Mary Beth McDonough, who played daughter Erin Walton, echoed this fondness for their on-screen family and the father who kept them close.

"That was the jewel at the heart of the show was the genuine caring that we all had for each other," Thomas said.

"Ralph is our Pa Walton, our daddy," McDonough wrote in her autobiography. "We always call him Ralph, never Mr. Waite."

McDonough said after the series ended, the family remained close, in part because of Waite's caring nature. "Ralph has always wanted the best for people. I love him for that, and for the continued smiles and laughter he still brings me."

Ralph's on-screen wife agreed. "Ralph was a complicated man, a good-hearted man," Michael Learned told EmmyTVLegends.org. "A kind person, deeply involved in his work." She said that the connection she and Waite felt went even further than a family bond.

She told Fox News at one point the actors who played Ma and Pa Walton actually developed strong romantic feelings for one another.

"We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken that extra step, and we didn't," Learned said. "We never did. We thought about it, but we didn't. And I think that's why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will, and I miss him terribly. His wife is a very good friend. But what Ralph and I had was something that came across on screen."

McDonough wrote in her book that on top of being kind, Waite was also a striking figure onscreen that boosted him to be a tremendous talent.

"Ralph has very penetrating eyes," she said. "With one look, he can scare you, make you laugh, or cause you to burst into tears."

Perhaps that penetrating stare is what helped the character of Pa Walton connect with so many in the audience at home? For humble Ralph Waite, it didn't matter what his role was in spreading the love of The Waltons, he was just proud to play his part.

"I don’t seriously see myself being a hero or being an icon," Waite once said. "I don't see myself as that. But I do see myself as someone who's been part of a group of actors who brought to people some sense of the dignity of life and the importance of love and education, those values that permeate The Waltons."

Watch The Waltons on MeTV!

Weekdays at 12 PM

*available in most MeTV markets
 
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?
Close

19 Comments

Post a comment
fokonin158 12 days ago
Read following report to learn how a single-mom with 3 kids was able to generate $89,844 of annual income working in her spare time online from her home without selling.
Copy Here.........>> topbestjob.com
F5Twitster 13 days ago
"When the series was casting the role of Pa Walton, however, the casting director Lee Rich said that Waite wasn't exactly perfect for the part."

Rich wasn't the casting director, he was the series Executive Producer, along with Earl Hamner, jr; everybody else, including Pam Polifroni and Doris Sabbagh -- the REAL casting directors -- answered to them.
CarolAnnJenkins 13 days ago
I still watch them and they still make me cry or laugh!!!! Love Waltons!!!!
SnowWhite 14 days ago
Technically it's not Ma and Pa, its Mama and Daddy.....j/s
KevinRush 14 days ago
I knew that because I live 12 miles from the area where the show was based. Not surprising because that chemistry was always there.
Jeffrey 14 days ago
I didn't know that about the ''Love'' between the actors who played Ma and Pa Walton on ''The Waltons''.
CathyGG 14 days ago
I watched this in my younger days and always related to the children, but now when I rewatch the series I can relate more to the parents and even the grandparents. It’s amazing how your perspective changes as you age. I’m enjoying watching these all over again.
FrankJohnson 14 days ago
I watch The Waltons everyday. My grandparents lived in the mountains in West Virginia. Just brings back so many memories. We watched it as a family when I was younger, great watching them over and over. Shows like this and my all time favorite The Andy Griffith Show are sorely missed on television. Too much junk on today. I just tape all my old favorites and watch them. Thank God they are bringing more back.
Shalyn 15 days ago
Good Waltons story but man, I was confused for awhile. “Ma” & “Pa” are the names John called Grandma and Grandpa Walton, But John and Olivia were always called Mama & Daddy by the kids.
JulieWillis 15 days ago
They were never referred to as Ma and Pa. They were Momma and Daddy. Ma and Pa were the Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie.
BonitaLove 15 days ago
I don't know how she kept from seeing where her relationship would go with Waite. I assume he wasn't married at the time. I think they would have made such a wonderful couple. I hate that he is deceased. I hope that Michael is still alive. It's my favorite show.
If you reread the story, Michael Learned said that she and his wife are good. Friends. Yes, ML is still alive.
ShannonMJ 15 days ago
I don't think they were ever called "Ma" and "Pa" ... were they???
ShannonMJ 15 days ago
"The Homecoming - A Christmas Story" (the made-for-TV movie pre-cursor / pilot to "The Waltons") cast Andrew Duggan and Patricia Neal in the roles of John and Olivia Walton. Several other actors in the movie were re-cast for the series; but I believe all the child actors from the movie remained for the series.
Nonflexus 15 days ago
I seem to remember on Learned's series, "Nurse", in one scene I heard the loud speaker announce "Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard", as in the 3 Stooges short.
JimMitchell Nonflexus 15 days ago
Was that on "Nurse" or on "St. Elsewhere"? She played a nun in the 3rd season of St E.
BustaNutter1 Nonflexus 14 days ago
I remember that, too. It was definitely on Nurse, never watched St. Elsewhere. No serious Stooges buff could have missed it.
I consider myself a serious Stooges buff and I missed it. Are you saying that those who consider themselves as such, aren't serious, because they may have also missed STE? I'm not that big of a fan on hospital shows, so I wouldn't have watched this or Nurse. The only Nurse show I saw was in the theatre: Nurse Betty, starring Morgan Freeman.
I stand corrected. Just reread your reply, and the Stooges were mentioned on Nurse and not STE.
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?