The cast of The Waltons: (top from left) Michael Learned, Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite (middle from left) Jon Walmsley, Ellen Corby, Will Geer, Kami Cotler, David W. Harper (bottom from left) Judy Norton, Eric Scott, Mary McDonough
(Top from left) Sam Haskell, Ben Lawson, Bellamy Young, Christian Finlayson, Richard Thomas, Logan Shroyer, Lev L. Spiro (bottom from left) Tatum Matthews, Marcelle LeBlanc, Samuel Goergen, Callaway Corrick
A 1971 TV listing for The Homecoming: A Christmas Story
Earl Hamner Jr. and Sam Haskell
Members of the casts and creative teams of The Homecoming: A Christmas Story and The Waltons: Homecoming
“The staying power it has is really astonishing.”
So says Richard Thomas of The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, the 1971 made-for-television movie that inspired the long-running CBS series The Waltons.
Now, Thomas makes a special appearance as himself at the beginning of The Waltons: Homecoming, a remake of the beloved classic premiering November 28 on The CW.
This December marks the 50th anniversary of the original film, which the INSP network is airing throughout the holiday season.
Thomas’ appearance in the updated version is fitting, as he remains perhaps the best known member of the famed TV clan for his Emmy-winning performance as aspiring writer and eldest son, John-Boy Walton.
The Waltons saga began with Spencer’s Mountain, Earl Hamner’s novel about a poor West Virginia family struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Published in 1961, the book became a 1963 motion picture of the same name starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara as Clay and Olivia Walton, and James McArthur (Hawaii Five-O) as their oldest son, Clay-Boy, a sensitive young man with dreams of being the first in his family to go to college.
In his teleplay for the original Homecoming, Hamner changed the family surname to Walton, Clay to John and Clay-Boy to John-Boy. It starred Patricia Neal as Olivia and Andrew Duggan as John Sr.; Ellen Corby and Edgar Bergen as paternal grandparents Esther and Zebb; and, of course, Thomas as John-Boy.
When CBS launched The Waltons in 1972, Michael Learned and Ralph Waite stepped in as Olivia and John Sr., Will Geer replaced Bergen as Grandpa Zebb and Corby continued as Grandma Esther.
In addition to Thomas, the same young performers from The Homecoming played the other six Walton children in the series: Jon Walmsley as Jason; Judy Norton as Mary Ellen; Mary McDonough as Erin; Eric Scott as Ben; David Harper as Jim-Bob; and Kami Cotler as Elizabeth.
After ending its run in 1981, the Waltons cast reunited for several popular TV movies in the 1990s, including A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion, A Walton Wedding and A Walton Easter.
In the new CW version of Homecoming, which premieres November 28, John-Boy is played by Logan Shroyer, who is familiar to television audiences for the role of Justin Hartley’s Kevin Pearson as a teenager on This Is Us.
The rest of the cast includes Bellamy Young and Ben Lawson as Olivia and John, Sr., Christian Finlayson as Jason, Marcelle LeBlanc as Mary Ellen, Tatum Sue Matthews as Erin, Samuel Goergon as Jim Bob and Callaway Corrick as Elizabeth. Rebecca Koon plays Grandma Esther and Alpha Trivette is Grandpa Zebb. Music superstars Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. make a cameo appearance.
Reflecting on the original Homecoming telefilm Thomas remembers thinking, “This is not like anything else on TV. Who knows if it will fly?”
But fly it did — across generations.
“The idea of the family structure of all those different demographics coming together in one show was kind of a big deal and very different,” Thomas says. “So, that’s how the audience sort of coalesced. And the critics got behind it.
“The Waltons certainly was a show in which familial love and a sense of community were the ground on which it was built,” he adds.
The series became so popular that it was parodied in Mad magazine and on The Carol Burnett Show in a sketch titled, “The Walnuts.”
Thomas was nothing but flattered by the Burnett segment in particular: “It was such an honor,” he says.
Similar appreciation for The Waltons runs deep in the performers who portrayed the other family members in the series.
“I loved working on the show,” says David Harper, who played Jim-Bob, the youngest Walton son. He still remembers how the Family Research Council “bombarded the studios” in the early ’70s with pleas for programming suitable for all ages.
When CBS scored strong ratings with The Waltons, Harper recalls, “It started a boom. Shows like Little House on the Prairie [NBC, 1974–1982] piggy-backed on us the next year, much the way I Dream of Jeannie piggy-backed off Bewitched [in the 1960s].”
“It’s all been such a blessing…such a gift,” says Mary McDonough, who played middle daughter Erin. “Earl Hamner’s incredible writing in The Homecoming captured a snapshot of Christmas. It was, and remains, a story about the bonds of family and community. It’s the same thing that made the show so great.”
McDonough also credits original Homecoming director Fielder Cook for guiding her through the process. “He really encouraged us to just be ourselves,” she says.
Judy Norton, who played tomboy Mary Ellen, agrees. Cook “was lovely,” Norton says. “Very easy to work with, he was great with all of us kids.”
Kami Cotler, who charmed audiences as the youngest Walton, Elizabeth, says Fielder “was able to invite me into the idea that we were pretending, and we were pretending in a really authentic way.”
“It was so realistic with such texture,” Cotler continues. “In The Homecoming, and in the first couple of years of making the series, it was a bit more like a movie from the ’40s or ’50s than like a 1970s television series.”
Playing a close-knit family created bonds among the cast members off-screen, as well.
Eric Scott, who played business-minded middle son Ben, invited his fellow TV siblings to his bar mitzvah. It was at that event, Scott and his fellow youthful peers learned from his agent that the Homecoming telefilm had been greenlit as a series. “That was an amazing day,” he says.
Before that happened, however, the original Homecoming cast was cautioned to take things slowly with Patricia Neal, who had suffered a stroke shortly before filming.
As Scott recalls, “I was told by my mom, and by everyone on the crew, ‘You have to be gentle with her.’ She had issues with her speech, but in the end, it’s clear she delivered a terrific performance.”
Edgar Bergen, who achieved fame as a ventriloquist in films and early television shows with his wooden sidekick Charlie McCarthy, also “seemed pretty fragile to me,” Scott says. “But he was very sweet and had a great sense of humor. And he was so good in his performance, especially because he had never performed on TV [in a dramatic role].”
Jon Walmsley, who played musically gifted Jason, also remembers Bergen fondly. “He was a sweet, lovely man. In Jackson Hole [Wyoming, where Homecoming was shot], he did some of his ventriloquist act for us — sitting in front of a fireplace and ‘throwing his voice,’ talking up to Santa, who literally sounded as though he were calling back down the chimney. It was remarkable, I’ll never forget it.”
As for Neal, Walmsley says, “She struck me a bit like royalty, in a way. It wasn’t until many years later, on a Waltons cruise, that I was exposed to her mischievous, playful side and her wicked sense of humor!”
Norton describes Neal as “astounding,” while Michael Learned and Ralph Waite “were just magic together.”
“Michael has often talked about how easy it was for her to play Olivia because of Ralph,” Norton says. “All he had to do was show up and play the scenes with him because he gave so much. And Ralph — I always felt was sort of the bedrock of the show. Neither he nor Michael had a false moment. You just believed that relationship, and they brought the audience in. When any of us played scenes with them it was just so easy because they were everything you would want in a set of parents. They were firm, but they were fair; they were compassionate, and yet they weren’t overly permissive.”
Learned remained close friends with Waite over the years. “I was devastated when he passed [in 2014], and I adored Patricia [Neal, who died in 2010],” she says. Though Learned’s Olivia was not as lenient as Waite’s John Sr., hers was a less stern performance than Neal’s.
“I knew that I couldn’t be quite as tough on a weekly basis,” she says. “There were certainly some moments where Olivia was tender and warm. So, she managed to walk that line, where you knew she loved her kids, even though she was strict with them.”
In the CW production, Olivia and John Sr. are played by Bellamy Young and Ben Lawson, whom Young describes as “the sweetest, most amazing actor” who captures “the essence” of the Waltons’ patriarch.
Reflecting on her own character, “Olivia leads a very secluded life,” Young says. “And I think she works extra hard to find joy in the day because a lot of her day is filled with worry and concern for her family. She really loves her kids. So, it was really fulfilling to play all of that and be part of the Waltons legacy.”
Front and center in continuing that legacy is Shroyer as John-Boy. “A lot of people told me that how much pressure there would be to step in Richard Thomas’ shoes,” he says. “But I tried not to take on any of it. One of the things that helped is that I talked with Richard about it, and he said he was there as much or as little as I needed him to be. He was like, ‘Just know that you’re John-Boy now, so do your thing.’”
As fate would have it, Thomas was grandfather to Shroyer’s childhood best friend. “So, Richard was someone that I had already known,” he says. “And he had always been giving me acting advice.”
And, just as the original cast developed a close connection, so, too did the new generation. “We all bonded so well,” Shroyer says.
In the process, the new Homecoming has aligned with Hamner’s original vision. Or, as Judy Norton says of the first Homecoming and The Waltons, “Earl felt that there needed to be that spice to offset the softer stuff.”
The consistent aesthetic thread and approach were guided in the reboot by producer Sam Haskell, a devoted fan of the original film and series. “I always loved The Waltons,” says Haskell, a longtime agent at William Morris who in recent years has become synonymous with heartwarming television productions.
These include a series of TV movies starring Dolly Parton, including Netflix’s Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, which won the Emmy for outstanding television movie earlier this year.
To bring a fresh perspective to the new Homecoming, Haskell reunited director Lev L. Spiro and writer Jim Strain, who performed those respective duties on the 2019 telefilm Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.
Among Strain’s tweaks to Hamner’s original teleplay were Thomas’ direct-to-camera introduction and the interspersing of narration throughout. It’s a voiceover presence that Thomas had sought to provide in the original telefilm and series, but that job went to Hamner.
Five decades later, however, “I finally did that,” says a delighted Thomas. “And it’s all come full circle.”
Herbie J Pilato is the host of Then Again, a classic TV talk show streaming on Amazon Prime, and the author of several books about television. For more information, visit www.HerbieJPilato.com.