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When America Needed Them, 'The Waltons' Were There


Good night, John-Boy. If you get that reference, you'll appreciate this next story. John-Boy was the eldest son of one of America's favorite TV families in the '70s, "The Waltons." And lest you think this story has no bearing on your current TV life, John-Boy was played by actor Richard Thomas, who played Agent Gaad in "The Americans" - so there. Back to "The Waltons," they were this big sprawling family trying to make their way through the Great Depression. And this past weekend, fans of the show gathered to mark the show's 45th anniversary. Here's Hawes Spencer of member station WCVE.


HAWES SPENCER, BYLINE: "The Waltons" were a big family - two parents, two grandparents and seven children all living in the same house. The show was told through the eyes of the oldest son, John-Boy. Kami Cotler loved that John-Boy was based on a real person, Earl Hamner, who created "The Waltons" from his memories of growing up in tiny Schuyler, Va.

KAMI COTLER: People want those connections. And "The Waltons," based on Earl's experience growing up in Schuyler and growing up in that small knit community, tells those stories.

SPENCER: When Cotler was 6, she was cast as Elizabeth, the youngest Walton on the program. The still red-headed Cotler returned to Schuyler for the 45th anniversary cast reunion. The show premiered on CBS as a Christmas special in 1971, when Elizabeth, cracking walnuts with her six siblings, was asked about having babies.


COTLER: (As Elizabeth Walton) I'm not going to have any babies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) What are you going to have, Elizabeth?

COTLER: (As Elizabeth Walton) Puppies.


SPENCER: For all the laughter on Walton's Mountain, the show portrayed real-life threats, from the Great Depression to World War II. But each episode was bookended by the soothing Southern voice of Hamner.


EARL HAMNER JR.: It was a poor time. But in it, we were richer than we knew.

SPENCER: In its first season, CBS slotted it on Thursday nights against "The Mod Squad" and "The Flip Wilson Show." "The Waltons" won. Retired college professor Woody Greenberg says the show was important at the time. Greenberg helped found the Walton's Mountain Museum. He says nobody had ever done a show about the Depression. But after the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the ongoing war in Vietnam, America needed "The Waltons."

WOODY GREENBERG: In college dorms, people would stop what they were doing on the night it was on, at the time it was on. They'd all gather in the lounge, where the only TV set generally was. And they'd watch "The Waltons" and sometimes laugh, sometimes cry.

SPENCER: One of the hallmarks of the show was conflict resolution done at the dinner table. It's one of the things that Sarah Blankenship (ph) loved about "The Waltons." During her visit to Schuyler, she said today's stressed out and squabbling families could learn a thing or two from the program.

SARAH BLANKENSHIP: They might - should have watched "The Waltons" a little bit more.

SPENCER: Blankenship wasn't alone in feeling the tug. Remember the little red-haired actress, Kami Cotler? A few years after graduating from college, she and her husband moved here for a time. Kami became Ms. Cotler, a teacher at the local high school.

COTLER: It seemed to make sense to me that if I was going to be an American studies major, I needed to go find out more about people and culture.

SPENCER: The crossroads between art and reality is something that her character and the oldest brother wrestled with four decades ago.


COTLER: (As Elizabeth Walton) You still awake, John-Boy?

RICHARD THOMAS: (As John-Boy Walton) Yes, Elizabeth.

COTLER: (As Elizabeth Walton) Do you always write what's true, or do you sometimes just make believe?

THOMAS: (As John-Boy Walton) Sometimes I make believe. It's called fiction.

COTLER: (As Elizabeth Walton) It's all right if you know it's make believe.

THOMAS: (As John-Boy Walton) Thank you, Elizabeth. Good night.

COTLER: (As Elizabeth Walton) Good night, John-Boy.

SPENCER: The real John-Boy, Earl Hamner, died last year at 92. But last weekend, Schuyler was Walton's Mountain once again - at least in the minds of the fans who came to celebrate the television show he created 45 years ago. For NPR News, I'm Hawes Spencer in Schuyler, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE WALTONS" THEME) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 26, 2017 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous Web introduction incorrectly said the show was based on the creator's early life in a tiny town in North Carolina. It should have said Virginia.
Hawes Spencer