Michael Learned just couldn’t accept the new John-Boy
Richard Thomas called leaving The Waltons "the stupidest thing I ever did in my life."
When Robert Wightman was introduced as the new John-Boy on The Waltons, his face was covered in bandages, and he didn’t speak in his first appearance.
For viewers, the unbandaging of John-Boy’s face was supposed to be a moment that transitioned them from exclusively thinking of Richard Thomas as John-Boy.
At least one member of The Waltons cast did not buy into this choice of imagery, though.
"I said, ‘So John-Boy’s coming back from war with bandages around his face," Michael Learned recounted to the Television Academy. "So, OK… now he has a different face, but he also has a different voice? I hated it. It’s partly why I left."
Earl Hamner has said that departures of actors like Learned and Thomas sapped energy from the show, and Thomas has said that his decision to leave was perhaps "the stupidest thing I ever did in my life."
Thomas told the Television Academy that he made the decision with "the infinite wisdom of a 26-year-old." He insisted that "there was absolutely no reason for me to leave except that I was ready to leave."
"My agent couldn’t believe it," Thomas said. "The producers couldn’t believe it. They offered me more money."
Learned also couldn’t believe it, and soon after Thomas left, she made plans to do the same.
"I just couldn’t deal with a new John-Boy," Learned said. "I couldn’t handle it. Not that he wasn’t a good actor. I feel sorry for him, actually."
Wightman was a virtual nobody when he got cast to step into Richard Thomas’ very large shoes to continue the role of John-Boy.
At the time, he was only active in the Los Angeles theater circuit, but he’d gotten a reputation for what The Los Angeles Times once described as his "Jimmy Stewart-like charm."
His first onscreen role ever was in a TV movie that Richard Thomas starred in called No Other Love.
It seemed Wightman was destined to stay in Thomas’ shadow, though, performing as John-Boy in 16 episodes of The Waltons and only one of the TV movies.
Thomas eventually returned to the role of John-Boy in the Nineties, happy to be welcomed back home on The Waltons.
At the time when Wightman was cast, though, Thomas had nothing but words of encouragement for his temporary replacement in the franchise:
"I think it’s terrific that someone else has been cast as John-Boy," Thomas told the Pittsburgh Press in 1979.