Tom Bower played a stunt pilot on The Waltons before marrying Mary Ellen
Daredevil Rex Barker was a far cry from Dr. Curtis Willard.
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The Waltons presented many aspects of life during the 1930s and '40s. It portrayed both the trials and the triumphs that the titular family faced and gave a glimpse into what life was like in rural Virginia during those years.
The classic series also cast a nostalgic light on different forms of entertainment from that time, whether it was going to a carnival or gathering around the radio. An immensely popular attraction that sprang up after World War I was barnstorming. These "flying circuses" involved stunt pilots traveling across America performing aerial tricks to small-town crowds. Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean, started out in barnstorm shows.
In The Waltons episode "The Wingwalker," one such pilot puts on a show not far from Walton's mountain. The pilot's name is Rex Barker, and he brags to John-Boy that the scar on his left cheek came after he "kissed" the ground a little too much. The episode's title refers to a stunt woman who actually walks along the wing of Barker's biplane. She and John-Boy have a brief romance but, in the end, decide to go their separate ways.
Though John-Boy is surprised to learn that the wingwalker he saw in the sky is a woman, it was not uncommon at the time to see women like Bessie Coleman, Katherine Stinson and Lillian Boyer perform harrowing feats high above the ground.
Even with his leather pilot helmet on, Waltons fans will immediately recognize the man who plays Rex Barker, actor Tom Bower. The daredevil was Bower's first role on the series but he would come back the following season in a much more important part, Dr. Curtis Willard.
Curtis arrives in season five and forms an immediate connection with Mary Ellen. Very immediate. She breaks off her engagement to the man she was about to marry and ties the knot with Curtis instead! Naturally, Tom Bower appeared numerous times as Dr. Willard in the fifth and sixth seasons of The Waltons. In fact, before he is called away to war, he and Mary Ellen have a son named John-Curtis.
Tom Bower played two roles that could not be more different but he wouldn't the be the first actor to play a one-off part then come back for a regular or recurring role. Roger Moore guest-starred on Maverick before coming on as the third leading man, Beauregarde, in the later seasons. There are many other examples, and not just on shows from the 1960s and '70s. Nancy Stafford had a single-episode role on the first season of Matlock before joining the cast as Michelle Thomas in season two.