‘Waltons’, one of the most enduring and courageous programs, turns 50

This 1974 photo provided by CBS shows, from left, David Harper as Jim-Bob Walton; Eric Scott, as Ben Walton; Michael Learned, as Olivia Walton; Kami Cotler, as Elizabeth Walton; Richard Thomas, as John Boy Walton; Mary McDonough, as Erin Walton; Judy Norton, as Mary Ellen Walton; Ralph Waite, as John Walton; Ellen Corby, as Ester “Grandma” Walton; Will Geer, as Zeb “Grandpa” Walton; and Jon Walmsley, as Jason Walton, on “The Waltons” TV show. (CBS Photo Archive via AP)

Reverend Matt Curry’s parents were children of the Great Depression, as were ‘The Waltons’ – the beloved TV family whose prime-time series premiered 50 years ago.

When Curry was growing up on a farm in North Texas, his carpenter father and teacher mother would often playfully argue over who had a poorer childhood.

“The Depression was the pivotal time of their lives — the time of family, survival, and survival,” said Curry, now a 59-year-old Presbyterian pastor in Owensboro, Ky. “My dad used to talk about how whose father went to work out of town and sent $5 a week to feed and clothe the family.

Richard Thomas attends the 2017 Tony Awards Meet the Nominees Press Day at Sofitel New York Hotel on Wednesday, May 3, 2017 in New York City. Now 71 and starring as lawyer Atticus Finch in a touring production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the former ‘The Waltons’ star said he still hears fans calling out ‘Goodnight , John-Boy!” after each performance. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

So when “The Waltons,” set in 1932 and spanning World War II, debuted on CBS on September 14, 1972, the Currys identified closely with the storylines. Millions more felt the same way, and the Thursday night drama about a Depression-era family in rural Virginia has become one of TV’s most popular and enduring programs.

At a time when networks generally steered clear of “dangerous” content, “The Waltons” was notable for tackling difficult topics — religion, in particular — said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at the Syracuse University.

“I think it was an important show, and I think it’s not getting the attention it deserves,” Thompson said.

“‘The Waltons’ really got into some very, very serious spiritual themes,” he added. “For example, an atheist comes to town, and we have this whole discussion between atheism and spirituality.”

“The Waltons” ran for nine seasons and 221 episodes, ranking second on the Nielsen charts. Half a century later, it still sparks nostalgia among loyal fans who can’t help but watch cable TV reruns, follow episodes via streaming apps and follow former stars via networks. social.

Based on the life of its creator, the late Earl Hamner Jr., the show followed a large extended family living on a two-story white farmhouse and running a sawmill in the fictional town of Walton’s Mountain at the foot of Blue Ridge. The parents, grandparents and seven children – John Jr., Jason, Mary Ellen, Erin, Ben, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth – were pictured wearing overalls and dresses, praying at meals and overcoming adversity through hard work and to grace.

“The Waltons” focused on John Jr., known as John-Boy, played by Richard Thomas and inspired by Hamner. The eldest brother, he aspired to be a writer and to discover the world beyond his humble upbringing.

Now 71 and starring as attorney Atticus Finch in a touring production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Thomas said he still hears fans calling “Goodnight, John-Boy!” after each performance. The familiar catchphrase pays homage to the Emmy-winning role that made him famous.

Distribution of “The Waltons”. (Contributed)

“It’s kind of amazing that we’re still talking about a show 50 years later,” said Thomas, who narrates “A Waltons Thanksgiving,” a made-for-TV movie airing this fall on the CW network.

“Having that kind of longevity and then having it enough that people want to make a new version of it – I don’t know exactly why,” he added. “I know it has affected the lives of many people. But mostly I think Earl Hamner’s writing was so great and the actors loved each other so much and we were so committed.

John-Boy had a lot to do with the show’s popularity – and inspired many crushes at the time among fans like Jerri Harrington, now 67, of Centreville, Virginia.

Harrington still watches an episode every night with her 47-year-old husband. During the frightening early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, her characters — especially Grandma Esther, played by the late Ellen Corby — brought a sense of comfort and childhood.

“Sounds familiar to me,” said Harrington, a grandmother herself.

Another lifelong fan, Carol Jackson, like Curry, the daughter of Depression-era parents, sees her own family’s history reflected. She became a fan in kindergarten and, as an adult, placed “Waltons” DVDs in the resort cabins her family operated in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas.

“I just said to my kids, ‘Someday when I’m old and in my wheelchair, just roll me past ‘The Waltons’ on a continuous loop, and I’ll be happy,” Jackson, 55, said. .

Kami Cotler, who was 6 when she first played the role of youngest sister Elizabeth in a 1971 holiday TV movie that launched the series, still interacts regularly with these fans via her Facebook page, which has nearly 150,000 subscribers.

Cotler said “The Waltons” shared “universal truths” that help explain his enduring popularity.

“The show often told very simple human stories that resonated with people because that’s what life is like,” said Cotler, now an educator in Southern California. “People will joke that it was very sweet, but I don’t think it actually was.”

On the show, parents John Walton Sr. and Olivia Walton — played, respectively, by the late Ralph Waite, a real-life ordained minister, and Michael Learned — frequently clashed over their differing approaches to God. Olivia was a devout Baptist, but John Sr. was not a churchgoer.

“I’ve always sought God in my own way,” he said in one episode.

A recurring theme was the appearance in Walton’s Mountain of an outsider – a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution, a black boxer and preacher raising money for a new church, a smoking and drinking Hollywood actress – who met with mixed reception .

In the 1972 episode “The Sinner”, a young pastor played by the late John Ritter arrived preaching Bible verses of fire and brimstone. But he inadvertently became intoxicated after drinking too much of the “secret recipe” served up by the Baldwin sisters, two recurring, decent characters who didn’t seem to realize they were smugglers.

After the accident sparked something of a scandal, John Sr. made a rare appearance at the church and emphasized Jesus’ words in John 8:7: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

“The religious aspect of the show had to do with the fact that Earl Hamner was talking about a time and a place… where these issues were very much at play,” said Thomas, now a grandfather of four. “I mean, in a small community in the mountains of Virginia during the Depression, if you’re not dealing with the religious aspect of things, then you’re not dealing with things as they were.”

Over the show’s long run, the Waltons and their neighbors have learned valuable lessons about overcoming differences and treating everyone with love and respect. These lessons, Cotler said, “are perhaps even more relevant today.”

On a personal note, Cotler, a secular Jew, credits his grandfather Zeb, played by the late Will Geer, with teaching him to sing church songs on the show.

Curry, the pastor from Kentucky, said “The Waltons” reflected how Jesus often chastises religious people for their hypocrisy in the Bible, while praising an unexpected person – like a Samaritan who helped a stranger – for showing of love and grace.

The show “was about religion and faith in a way that doesn’t put people down,” Curry said. “There’s something about that that we miss today, and that’s the sense of community, of unity, of fighting through tough times.”