Michael Learned Turns 85 Proud Of The Work She Did During And After ‘The Waltons’


Michael Learned immediately enchanted viewers with her portrayal of Olivia Walton, the matriarch of the titular The Waltons. The character was based on the mother of show creator Earl Hamner Jr., who insisted that she never did a thing wrong. The character he envisioned represented the ideal compassionate figure and it was Learned’s keen eye for messy, relatable depth that made Olivia real on a whole other level. Now at 85, Michael Learned is proud of the work she did after The Waltons—and of what she got up to after leaving the program prematurely.

Learned was born on April 9, 1939, and started the week celebrating her 85th birthday. The trajectory of her career was an unexpected one, just as much as her start as a diplomat’s daughter and a rustic farm girl turned globetrotter. Like Olivia, she came to harbor lofty dreams not just of stardom but of bringing complexity to the characters she played, a goal that became a source of triumph and troubles for Learned on the set of The Waltons.


Why did Michael Learned leave ‘The Waltons’?

The Waltons came during a turbulent time of change for her / Monty Sherman / TV Guide / courtesy Everett Collection

Learned started her acting career on the stage, a medium of storytelling that would cause her some anxiety when she returned to performing in front of a live audience. “You could say I’m a little apprehensive,” she admitted, referring to a 1980 premiere night for a Broadway play at the Playhouse called After The Season. “This is a challenge that is affecting my eating, my sleeping. But, that’s part of the game. Some people in this position get sick. I find my knees wobbling on stage.”


RELATED: The Bond Between Ma And Pa Walton Was Real Between Ralph Waite And Michael Learned

But there was a time when Learned felt growing pains switching from the stage to the camera. It was a learning curve that had Learned—already dealing with separating from her husband while trying to raise kids—contemplating leaving the show. “In the early stages of The Waltons, I wanted out. I had difficulty making the adjustment from the American Conservatory Theatre,” she admitted.

On top of that, she had a wish for Olivia that clashed more than a bit with Hamner’s rose-tinted vision of the character and her real-life muse. “You’ve got to have Olivia make a mistake and punish the wrong child or something a little more human,” she insisted to Hamner. It was during this discussion Hamner told Learned that Olivia was based on his mother who, under further questioning, he insisted never made such mistakes. The back-and-forth continued, though, until Learned got his blessing to give Olivia some messy edges and slip-ups here or there.

“I think that was part of the charm of the show,” mused Learned, “that we weren’t perfect — at least not in the first two years.” That, at least, made Olivia more relatable to her, as Learned was a self-proclaimed potty mouth—and proud of it. “Ribald. Dirty jokes. Cussing,” she listed of her usual repertoire. “I have a filthy mouth. I try not to, but I do… that’s who I am, I’m sorry.” That apology is probably directed at the few fans who have heard Learned drop a few vulgar words; hear that, “it almost knocked them to the floor” to know that “Olivia Walton knows that word!”

Learned wanted some imperfections to come out not just in Olivia but in any character she played. She explained, “I wanted to do something about a woman from many angles.” Meanwhile, caught in a time-consuming filming schedule, there were some days “while we were shooting, I’d stand around all day waiting to deliver one line – and that one line might be something as important as ‘Please pass the salt.’”

So, she reasoned, “Eight years is a long time to be doing the same thing. If I didn’t push myself to make a move to get out and try something else, I never would. All the exploration work on the character had been done. I had reached the point where I couldn’t make any more mistakes. I loved the whole family, but part of me did not feel fulfilled.”

America’s mom still celebrates the hardships she faced as Olivia Walton and after as she turns 85

THE WALTONS, Michael Learned (l), Richard Thomas (r), 1972-1981 / Everett Collection

Despite admitting to having “contradictory feelings about the show,” Learned also harbored a deep, unshakeable love for The Waltons that has not wavered now that she’s 85. Some of it is gratitude, because “without it I might not be here with this extraordinary play.” But it is also for introducing Olivia to herself and so many others, an opportunity that Michael Learned is still thankful for at 85.

“It’s a responsibility, really, when you’re playing that kind of a role,” said Learned, speaking with her on-screen daughter Judy Norton as they reflected on the program.

At 85, Michael Learned is still active and proud of the work she’s done as Olivia / ImageCollect

“You are, to so many people, America’s mom,” noted Norton, “you were a role model.” Learned knows this is no exaggeration from a castmate; she’s been told by a fan, “I wish I could be a good mother like Olivia.”

In the past, proclamations like that have sometimes gotten a cringe out of Learned. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for Olivia when it counted. “Olivia Walton has nothing to apologize for,” she’s boasted. “She had her integrity intact and didn’t question who or what she was. It was very clear to her.”

America’s mom, Olivia Walton, today / YouTube screenshot

She did not want to immediately go right back into television after withdrawing from The Waltons, but landing the gig on Nurse in 1982 gave her a chance to accomplish that other dream of hers and spread her acting wings a bit, dirty a character up if need be, and “do something about a woman from many angles.” Nurse was just that, “a vehicle that would give me dramatic stuff.”

But The Waltons still earns deference from Learned, who is an active part of discussions about the show whenever Norton comes to call.

Wishing Michael Learned a very happy birthday at 85!

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