The Waltons creator was proud to give John Ritter his first big Hollywood role
John Ritter and John-Boy were best friends backstage.
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The Reverend Matthew Fordwick was fresh from Bible school when he first turned up to lead The Waltons mountain church. But just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed was the actor who portrayed the Reverend.
This was John Ritter's first major Hollywood role, playing this recurring character on The Waltons, and according to series creator Earl Hamner Jr., this casting choice remained a bright spot when he looked back on his wildly successful series. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Hamner said with great sentiment in his voice, "I’m proud that was one of John’s first roles in Hollywood."
"He played a young minister who was so sanctimonious and so straight-laced and just such an upstanding person that the entire community was outraged when he inadvertently drank some of the recipe which was made by the two old lady bootleggers, and was unable to deliver his first sermon because he was drunk," Hamner said. "John took that role and he ran with it."
Ritter was not just a force onscreen, though. Behind the scenes, Ritter and John-Boy actor Richard Thomas used to goof off and entertain the whole cast with their antics, according to Hamner, bringing considerable joy that kept the mood light on set.
"Not only was he a marvelous actor on the show, but sometimes in movie studios, the set seems to get tense, and he and Richard would crack everybody up," Hamner said.
In particular, you likely remember watching the show and frequently seeing the camera pan up to John-Boy's room, where he’d be deep in reading a book or diligently writing.
Well, behind the scenes, Ritter and Thomas didn't retreat to John-Boy’s room to ponder serious thoughts. Instead, Hamner said one time the two actors decided to play a joke, acting like gorillas, so that when the camera panned up, it didn’t find a studious young man, but this time, two guys causing an absolute ruckus.
"I know at one point the camera went up to the room, which was supposedly John-Boy’s room and you’d see John-Boy reading or writing, and instead of John-Boy being there, it was Richard and John doing their gorilla act," Hamner said. "They’re terribly funny together."
Ritter's presence onset did more than just lighten the mood for at least one other castmate, though. In an interview with Oprah, Mary McDonough (Erin Walton) revealed that as she was growing into her teen years on the show, the pressure of expectations to look perfect started to get to her.
She told Oprah it was Ritter who noticed her struggling and offered some important advice.
"John Ritter noticed … and he said, 'What’s going on with you?'" McDonough recalled. "I said, 'Nothing, I'm fine!' And he said, 'No, no. Why don’t you start doing a journal?' And that night, I started journaling."
The journal helped her work out those tangled teenage thoughts she was having that we were so used to seeing John-Boy work out in his thoughtful way in episodes.
Ritter appeared in 18 episodes of The Waltons before he left the show for his starring role on Three's Company. For Hamner, casting Ritter on his show was yet another way for him to come full circle from his childhood, on which The Waltons show was famously based. He said as a kid he used to sit around the radio listening to John Ritter's father, Tex Ritter, singing country songs on the radio.
Whether or not his fandom of father Tex Ritter helped John Ritter get cast on the show, Hamner doesn't say, but what is crystal clear is that once Ritter joined the show, everybody knew he was something special. "So we gave him a start," Hamner said. "And I’m sure we're all proud of that."