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.

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hyppymom 14 months ago
Im with Miss Michael Learned! It was too late in the game to throw a different John Boy in. I kinda lost interest at that point.
ShawnM 22 months ago
Just like in the show ‘Last Man Standing’ Replaced the first daughter I got used to that. Replaced the second daughter (as the result of the show being canceled and picked up by another network) what were they thinking there? No even close.
McGillahooala ShawnM 4 months ago
The first oldest daughter was the best. The one who took her place couldn’t come close.
L 23 months ago
I always thought that Richard Thomas left the show to do movies.
TinaMarieHaddadRhodes 23 months ago
No one learned from Bewitched. Some characters you just can’t replace. They tried it on Dallas it didn’t work. It didn’t work for me on the Brady Bunch variety show or in the movies. The two Becky’s on Roseanne, no good. They have done it time and again and just doesn’t work…
The problem is, if they lose the actor, they either lose the character or use a new actor. Peripheral characters candisappear, but it's harder for a central character. You have to concoct a reason, and the loss of a Darrin or whatever changes the dynamics. Eight is Enough survived the mother's death, but they brought in a new womanto marry in.
LynCarceo Michael 18 months ago
The loss of a Darrin was because of the health of the actor, I believe. If so, no choice there.
MC1707 LynCarceo 4 months ago
True. Health was the cause.
BruceBaker 23 months ago
I hate when they replace a character with a different actor and pretend nothing happened hoping for a seamless transition. At least they thought ahead and had a story line.
LoveMETV22 23 months ago
Nice to see many comments. Usually the stories MeTV does on anything Walton's related don't get much fanfare.
MattAlbrecht 23 months ago
It's okay Richard...your career went no where after the Walton's, and had you hung around, I don't think it would have either, judging by how well the other kids did.
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DLO MattAlbrecht 18 months ago
Richard gave good performances in two episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Wiseguy70005 MattAlbrecht 18 months ago
Waltons, no apostrophe. Plural, not possessive.
TOMPA3790 L 6 months ago
What vis that?
I think it was an auto correct error. It happens to everyone.
Ljudylynn 23 months ago
Mary Ellen's husband, Curtis was played by 2 different guys. They should have left him dead instead of replacing him. Now THAT was a dumb move by the producers. And young Ashley Longworth was played by 2 different actors.
CoreyC Ljudylynn 23 months ago
One was Jonathan Frakes who was later best known as William Riker of Star Trek The Next Generation.
wrialhuden Ljudylynn 23 months ago
Perhaps Tow Bower wasn't available at the time to reprise his role when the script for "The Tempest" was submitted. Frankly, I believe it was a mistake to bring Curt back to life, so to speak. It was established he was killed at Pearl Harbor but several years later Mary Ellen is informed that Curt is living in Florida, having started a new life there because he didn't want to return to Mary Ellen and John Curtis as his war injuries left him impotent...
goplad wrialhuden 23 months ago
Bower asked for a small salary raise but the producers balked then decided to replace him.
Michael Ljudylynn 23 months ago
I'm not so worried about the actor changing, but the story of Curtis makes no real sense. He dies, Mary Ellen gets on with her life, becoming a nurse and then working to become a doctor.

But bringing Curt back didn't add anything. If he'd gone missing, yes. But he died.

I don't think the show thought it through. I can't believe this was planned all along.

Some of the returns make little sense, but certainly if an actor is hired for one role, they may not be available if the show decides to bring them back. David Huddleston was great as The Literary Man, but when they grought the character back, another actor, and the pizazz of the role is gone. Maybe it's David Huddleston, maybe it's putting this roaming character into a job. They probably should have just used a new character, except for the part wher John Boy knew him.
Airedale92129 goplad 23 months ago
Some producers let their greed get in the way of what's best for the show. Andy Griffith & his producers wrote wonderful Betty Lynn off the show, rather than give her the modest raise she was asking for.
PrayerRider Ljudylynn 16 months ago
Yeah, that didn’t work either. Scott Hylands couldn’t even begin to act like Kurt Willard. Before he went off to war Kurt was a practical, no-nonsense, down-to-earth kind of guy who never let anything stop him getting what he wanted. There’s no way he would have been that embarrassed and egotistical over an injury to his manhood, as to let it keep him away from his wife and son. If he couldn’t have anymore children of his own he would have said they should just adopt more. Tom Bowers’s Kurt would never have run away and become such a whiner. Scott Hylands’s Kurt was a moron!
Ljudylynn 23 months ago
Talking about how the show used the same actors for different roles, there was also the guy in the same hospital room with John boy. He later came on to play Paul, Erin's fiance and later her husband. Come on!
Michael Ljudylynn 23 months ago
The lumberjack? I just saw that episode recently, I didn't recognize him.
Ljudylynn 23 months ago
The show replaced many characters with other actors: Verdies son, Josh was played by different kids, Rose had a previous role as the landlady when Erin and MaryEllen moved out, Olivia's aunt was played by 2 different actresses, and I believe Kip Niven played a pastor and also an army officer on the show. I've been watching reruns on Hallmark channel and really noticed all the changes throughout the different seasons. It bothers me and makes me wonder if the producers thought the viewers wouldn't notice. Also, have any of you noticed all the cold sores the actors had on their lips? Kind of gross.
jezthewitch Ljudylynn 23 months ago
Many of these series used actors for different roles. Little house on the prairie did the same. It never bothered me. I looked at it like maybe the producers liked the person and kept their eyes open for another part they could play. Its a great show, watch it with a positive attitude
Michael Ljudylynn 23 months ago
One thing, watching the series every weekday puts episodes closer together. The changing actors becomes more obvioys when the episodes aren't weeks apart.
Coldnorth Ljudylynn 23 months ago
With HD today the older shows all their flaws. Some of their makeup is so thick I’m surprised it didn’t crack. Even today, you can see acne, different hair tints and cold sores. Close ups must be hard for some actors now because nothing can be hidden by makeup
DeborahRoberts 23 months ago
Thomas leaving didn't kill the show. It made sense for John-Boy to go to New York, and the show did fine without him for a while. The problem was the same one that destroys many great shows: not knowing when to quit.

The last great moment for the show was the Pearl Harbor episode when Jim-Bob has to tell his sister her husband was killed in the attack. If they'd stopped then, they could have gone out on a beautifully written and acted high. Instead they dragged on. Olivia abandoned the family for D.C. when Learned left, which was completely out of character. Some of the kids aged into mediocre actors. They foolishly recast John-Boy, and Mary Ellen's husband came back from the dead (another recast) with the bizarre explanation that he'd faked his death because Pearl Harbor had left him impotent. 🙄

A great show deteriorated into a bad soap because no one wanted to stop milking the cash cow.
wrialhuden DeborahRoberts 23 months ago
I figured the reason Ms. Learned left was BECAUSE the show was morphing into a soap opera. I suspect some executive at Lorimar pushed for it to veer into soap opera territory when "Dallas" (also produced by Lorimar) became a smash hit right out of the gate.
CaroleThorpe 23 months ago
So what alternatives were left to producers with Thomas' "stupidest" decision. If they didn't tmreplace him, the only other options left would be to kill off Jonn-Boy (which the audience then would never tolerate) or cancel the series and put everyone else out of work. Dozens pf people behind as well as in front of the camera would have been affected. They did the best they could being put in an impossible position by Thomas.
RonLunn 23 months ago
I agree with Michael Learned recounting about her feelings for the new John Boy. Both my wife and I felt the same way, quite awkward.
LoveMETV22 RonLunn 23 months ago
I agree with most, that Robert Wightman just didn't recreate the original John-Boy. However he was just brought on to finish out a series that was to end anyways. Both Richard Thomas and Michael learned had decided to leave the series anyway so the " Michael Learned just couldn’t accept the new John-Boy" phrase and the Richard Thomas " "the stupidest thing I ever did in my life." phrase, are just one of numerous reasons, as both actors have said in numerous interviews. I guess they added them in their article to give it a little pep. So a kudos to Robert Wightman for his part in helping Earl Hamner end what was a great television series.
CaptainDunsel 23 months ago
I never watched The Waltons (beyond the first movie, "The Homecoming") in first run or syndication, so I have no opinion on Wightman's performance, the story arc or any other "in series" aspect of the change.

But it seems to me that very few performers who step into a well-liked role established by another performer get very far in their careers. I'm referring to recasting rather than replacing the character. So, Darrin Stevens counts (and may be considered an exception) while Major Burns / Major Winchester does not.

Can anyone think of some exceptions? Performers whose career survived taking over an established character.
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CaptainDunsel GlennaRose 23 months ago
You are correct - people in military units often leave. But we're talking about TV stories, not actual military units. Gomer Pyle stayed in the Marine Corps for years, when a real person in that position would long have been let go for "failure to adapt".
That's why I mentioned Burns/Winchester as *not* being the sort of replacement I was thinking of. The character of Winchester was a different character filling a similar story function - that of foil for the Hawkeye/BJ pair. I was talking of actors stepping into the same character as another.
LoveMETV22 GlennaRose 23 months ago
More a personality flaw or childish behavior on Agnes Moorehead's part towards Dick Sargent. The producers ended Dick York's run on the show after York suffered a seizure while on set. However both actors did a good job in that role. All in all an enjoyable series.
LoveMETV22 GlennaRose 23 months ago
CaptainDunsel's comment is correct regarding "talking about TV stories, not actual military units." Larry Linville (Major Burns) had a 5 year contract with the M*A*S*H series, he was offered a 2 year extension on that contract, which he declined. He felt he developed the character as far as he could and didn't wish to go any further with the series. I liked both characters, but it was nice when David Ogden Stiers (Major Winchester) joined the cast, he gave the series a breath of fresh air which it needed at the time.
MC1707 GlennaRose 23 months ago
Good show and Mr. York WAS Darin Stevens. So much better than Mr. Sargent.
CoreyC 23 months ago
I understand the reason Richard Thomas leaving is that he wanted to do different roles other than John Boy Walton but he was too recognizable as him. Most fans of TV shows find it almost impossible to accept another actor in the role. Just look at Dick Sargent as the new Darrin.
MC1707 CoreyC 4 months ago
That happening is both a detriment to and actor AND a compliment. A DETRIMENT in that they played and fit the part so well, they are forever seen as that character and maybe then can find another part. It is a COMPLIMENT, in the actors ability that they played the part so well and made the character so believable it appear as a real person. George Reeves, Superman is another example.
Carolyn813 23 months ago
I am a 75 year old African American Female. The Walton's has been so special to me for so many years. When Grandpa passed away I missed him so much. After Richard Thomas left the show.....now that made me cry. He was so talented at such a very young age. All of the Walton's were special to me. You know to this day when anything goes wrong in this world 🌍 I love to watch the Walton's. It just makes me feel better. Just hearing the intro music warms my heart. There will never be a Family Show like the WALTON'S.🤗
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slinton4 Carolyn813 23 months ago
Thanks so much for your comment. I think we all need to have a special “place” to retreat to, especially with the craziness of things today. Not everyone shares the same feelings but, for me, the Waltons is a chance to slow down for just a bit.
Flowerschild Carolyn813 19 months ago
Thank you for sharing as I feel the exact same why. I’m 56 and grew up watching the Waltons as well, it reminds me of a sweeter, kinder time. It seems to bring me comfort when I’m feeling down and makes me feel closer to my own friends and family who are no longer with me. God bless you.
PrayerRider JiuJitsuLife 16 months ago
I was Erin’s age (9) when I first started watching The Waltons, starting with The Homecoming in 1970. I am now 62 years old, have seen every episode multiple times, plus all the after-movies, and never get tired of it. However, I could not bring myself to watch the new remake of The Homecoming. Having watched the original for the past 52 years, and seeing the ads for the new one, I knew I would hate it. I get to loving the original characters of my much-loved old shows so much I don’t deal well with new changes.
TOMPA3790 Carolyn813 6 months ago
John-boy was only one person; any other substitute was a fake.
LadyAgnes 23 months ago
Michael Learned left when she got the show "Nurse".
Jerryfan LadyAgnes 4 months ago
I really liked that show back then. It also had Robert Reed in it.
RichLorn 23 months ago
And another series jumps the shark.
GTStang08 23 months ago
Most of us who grew up watching "The Waltons", knew that once Richard Thomas (John Boy) left, came back, and left again, then we learned that Michael Learned left for good after leaving the first time...that things just weren't the same. Grandma and Grandpa were already gone and the storylines began to have less and less meaningful purpose. The show should have ended in '79. All good things come to an end, just like "The Rifleman". But the producers kept it going and the show was soon becoming the laughing stock of many of my middle and high school classmates.
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