Richard Gilliland's whirlwind romance on The Waltons later played out in real life behind the scenes of a hit sitcom
The handsome guest star who swept Mary Ellen off her feet actually fell head over heels for Jean Smart the moment he met her in the real world.
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In a romantic episode of The Waltons called "The Whirlwind," we watched Mary Ellen instantly fall for a man who she’s just met after he arrives on the mountain.
Jonesy, played by Richard Gilliland, made Mary Ellen swoon so hard, by the episode’s end, they made a plan to marry.
That got serious fast!
If you’re a Waltons fan, you know that even more romantically, Mary Ellen did eventually marry Jonesy, but not until the reunion movie.
But you may not know that Gilliland, who guest-starred in many TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s, later experienced a similar whirlwind courtship on the set of Designing Women, before that show even premiered and five years after his story with Mary Ellen was introduced.
Gilliland met his soulmate Jean Smart when he was auditioning for the role of Mary Jo's boyfriend on Designing Women. The series had not yet debuted, so no one at the time knew it would be such a big hit. Smart was hoping for the best after joining the cast after three failed short-lived series, and she was scrutinizing everyone on the show, considering whether they’d be a good fit to round out the cast.
"I saw him first, standing at the top of the stairs in the building where we sat at a table and read the script," Smart told The Pantograph in 2008.
She thought he looked familiar, but she couldn’t place where she'd seen him before.
"I thought, 'Gosh he's cute,' with a great smile and all that stuff," Smart remembered. "I wonder if he's going to be on our show."
He was indeed cast as J.D. Shackelford, portraying Annie Potts' boyfriend on the show, but it was Smart who caught his eye just as fast the moment she sat down across from the table.
"I was kind of stunned by her," Gilliland said. "She was quite an eye-opener. Very funny … and with a great bawdy laugh. And I do remember what she was wearing that moment."
Gilliland was pretty sure Smart was smitten from the moment they met, too, and in the interview, Smart agreed, "I was quite taken with him."
A couple of lunch dates led to four months dating, an engagement, and three months later, wedding bells. That's a whirlwind even Mary Ellen never experienced!
Before auditioning on Designing Women, Gilliland had actually dated one of Smart’s costars Delta Burke, who had introduced him to everyone on the show except for Jean.
It was like the stars aligned so they would lock eyes and fall in love at the right time, two years after Burke and Gilliland had ended things amicably. The couple described their fateful meeting on set as "extreme interest at first sight."
Gilliland and Smart stayed married, acting together as a husband-and-wife duo and even touring with a personal show called "Love Letters," in which they revealed the sparkling inner confessions of their real-life romance.
On their 21st wedding anniversary, The Pantograph reported that the lovebirds "still trade flirtatious banter like two young kids who just fell for each other a month ago."
Earlier this year, Gilliland passed away suddenly after a short illness, and Smart, still his loving wife at the time, could still be heard in more recent interviews joking about how, "I met him when he was kissing someone else."
In his career, Gilliland starred in the 1970s show Operation Petticoat and played Jo's love interest Laurie in the TV mini-series Little Women before he became known as Jonesy on The Waltons. He later starred in the short-lived 1980s series Just Our Luck and Heartland before turning up on Designing Women. He continued acting through 2020, appearing on more recent hit shows like CSI, Scandal, 24, and Desperate Housewives.
While Gilliland described Smart's instant appeal as largely due to her big laugh, she credits something else that's perhaps a little sweeter with sealing the deal on the fact that they were clearly soulmates, and they knew it right from the start.
"I asked him one day to help me with a crossword puzzle I was doing in my dressing room," Smart said. "And I plied him with Oreo cookies. The Oreo cookies — that was the clincher."