On March 30, 1978, in the final episode of the sixth season of The Waltons, Emmy-winning actress Ellen Corby returned to the role of Grandma Esther Walton after surviving a near-fatal stroke fifteen months earlier.
The 66-year-old veteran character actress was partially paralyzed and her ability to speak was severely impaired. Producer Earl Hamner Jr. (who wrote Spencer’s Mountain, the autobiographical novel upon which the series was based, and also served as narrator) could have decided to kill Grandma off, or recast the role, as he would later do with the character of John-Boy after star Richard Thomas left the series. Instead, he chose to write Corby’s illness and recovery into the storyline. It was a bold decision, and Corby’s willingness to perform on national television in a physically compromised state was enormously courageous.
I was 9-years-old when Grandma Comes Home aired and it was, by far, the most realistic hour of television drama I had ever seen. I saw the sorrow in Corby’s eyes as she tried to form sentences, and the anger and fear when she could not. I watched as Grandpa (Will Geer, who died only months later), grandkids Jason (Jon Walmsley), Ben (Eric Scott), Jim-Bob (David W. Harper), Mary Ellen (Judy Norton), Erin (Mary Beth McDonough), and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), son John Sr. (Waite) and daughter-in-law Olivia (Michael Learned) tried to help her, speak for her, and protect her, when all she wanted was to regain the ability to do things on her own.
The idea that a person’s own brain could mutiny and sabotage their body was chilling to me, like the stuff of science fiction. But this was real, and I understood that. I also began to grasp in some small way the power that the continuing narrative of a quality television show can wield on the audience, as we develop relationships with characters over extended periods of time, and, in the case of The Waltons, bid them goodnight at the end of each episode.
Not long after I watched Grandma Comes Home, my own grandmother suffered a similarly debilitating stroke, at roughly the same age. Nanny was a lot like Corby’s character, with a shoot-from-the-hip style and little patience for nonsense. She could barely speak when she got home from the hospital, and my mother, always uncomfortable with inactivity and feelings of powerlessness, started finishing her sentences for her, with the best of intentions.
“Don’t finish Nanny’s sentences,” I told my mother. “She needs to do it herself.”
I learned that from The Waltons.
This distant memory popped into my head on Thursday evening when I heard that Ralph Waite, the actor who played patriarch John Walton Sr. for nine seasons on CBS and in six reunion movies for NBC, had died at age 85.
Born in White Plains, New York in 1928, Waite only started acting in his 30s and ending up landing his career-defining role at age 44, after memorable turns in films like COOL HAND LUKE (1967) and FIVE EASY PIECES (1970). He maintained a successful career for the rest of his life, with recurring roles in recent years on NCIS (as the father of series star Mark Harmon’s character), Bones, and Days of Our Lives.
“He died a working actor at the top of his game,” said Michael Learned, who played his wife longer than most real marriages last. “He was a loving mentor to many, and a role model to an entire generation.”
Although I didn’t watch every episode of The Waltons – it was scheduled against Welcome Back, Kotter, required viewing for 4th graders in 1978 – what I recall most about Waite was the unadorned realism of his performance. While other TV dads seemed artificial, Waite reminded me of my own father: sometimes gruff, sometimes cheerful, but always a straight shooter and an honorable man. It’s a character that stays with you, like an old friend or family member you haven’t seen for many years, but remember fondly. And it’s been lovely to see the find remembrances of Waite in the last 24 hours.
Thinking about all this today gave me the urge to revisit the series and I was shocked to discover just how easy that is to do, all these years later. The Waltons is currently on three different national cable networks, which air a combined 42 TV episodes per week(!) And this is not a special marathon in honor of Waite’s passing; this is just standard operating procedure. I don’t know how long this has been going on, or how long it will last, but 2014 is like 1933 again on Walton’s Mountain.
The Hallmark Channel, airs the series a dozen times per week, Monday – Thursday at 7, 8, and 9 p.m. (ET). Their show page includes a bulletin board, trivia, and many classic clips, which you can watch for free (even if you’re not a cable subscriber). The Inspiration Network (which may be in your listings as INSP) broadcasts an astounding 20 shows per week, Monday – Friday at 10 a.m. and 4, 7, and 8 p.m. (ET). Their webpage also includes a (sort of) funny Duck Dynasty-themed promo. And Uplifting TV (aka UP or UpTV) airs 10 episodes per week – Monday – Friday at 9 and 10 a.m. (ET). Their site contains episode summaries for the next 22 broadcasts.
This means you can watch at least one Waltons episode during six of the 24 hours of each weekday. Here’s a handy pocket guide:
The Waltons Nationwide Cablecasts: Monday – Friday
9 a.m. – UP
10 a.m. – UP And INSP
4 p.m. - INSP
7 p.m. – INSP and Hallmark (no Friday on Hallmark)
8 p.m. – INSP and Hallmark (no Friday on Hallmark)
9 p.m. – Hallmark (no Friday on Hallmark)
Even if you’re not familiar with these channels, if you get cable it’s likely you have them (or at least one of them). Hallmark is available in nearly 86 million homes, INSP in 75 million and UP in 65 million. Interestingly, all three launched as Christian-themed TV networks: Hallmark in 1992 as the American Christian Television System and the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network (VISN/ACTS); UP in 2004 as The Gospel Music Channel; and INSP in the early ’70s as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Satellite Network. (Yes, that Tammy Faye Bakker.)
In addition to the TV episodes, this Sunday, February 16, UP will be airing two of the six reunion movies produced for NBC: A WEDDING ON WALTON’S MOUNTAIN (1982) at 9 a.m. and A WALTON WEDDING (1995) at 11 a.m. The later features Ellen Corby’s penultimate performance as Grandma. She continued to play the role for two decades after her stroke, allowing the character to see her grandchildren marry and have children of their own.
For those without cable, 47 episodes from seasons 1 and 2 are available to purchase for streaming on Amazon Instant for $1.99 each or $29.99 for a season pass. All nine seasons, as well as the reunions and the original, 1971 made-for-TV movie featuring Andrew Duggan as John Sr. and Patricia Neal as Olivia are also available on DVD. The individual season box sets range in price on Amazon from $13.99 to $37.60, and my friend and fellow classic TV fan Frank Gruber says you can pick up complete season sets for as little as $7.99 at Target and Wal-Mart. So far I’ve watched three episodes streaming, and, while they’re not necessarily meticulously remastered, they are unedited and commercial free.
In October of 2013, the entire surviving cast of the series gathered for a reunion photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly. “You know, this may be the last time we’re all together,” David W. Harper (Jim-Bob) said. “This is a chance for us to come full circle.”