‘The Waltons’: Henry Fonda Nearly Played John Walton

Classic TV shows are going through a major renaissance, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Viewers of all ages are turning to wholesome, comforting television shows as a way to escape more sobering entertainment, such as the daily news.

One of the most heartwarming TV shows of television’s Golden Age is The Waltons, a show that first aired in 1971. The series became successful right away and remained on the air for nine seasons, even spawning some successful television movies. The Waltons remains a mainstay for many fans, primarily because of the close familial relationships portrayed in the show. 

What is ‘The Waltons’ about?

Fans first met the Walton family in 1971, when the television movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story aired on CBS. A few months after the television movie became a success, the series The Waltons premiered.

The show focused on the Walton family, which includes John and Olivia Walton, their seven children, and their parents. John Walton Jr., better known as “John-Boy” is the show’s narrator, as well as the main character — many of the show’s storylines follow his exploits and the adventures of his six siblings.

Set primarily during the Great Depression and later, World War II, the Waltons are shown to be humble people, always ready to help their neighbors or other people in need. Many fans were drawn to the depiction of family values and love between relatives, and it became one of the most popular shows on television. 

Ralph Waite played John Walton on ‘The Waltons’

RELATED: ‘The Waltons’ Star Ralph Waite Was Paid $10,000 a Week for Playing John Walton on the Show

In the role of John Walton Sr. was Ralph Waite, an actor who had worn many hats over the early part of his career. Waite served in the military in the forties and worked as a social worker and minister before becoming an actor in the early sixties. He made his Broadway debut in 1963 and acted continuously throughout the sixties, appearing in both film and television roles.

He was cast in The Waltons in 1971 and received acclaim from critics and fans for his warm, charming performance. He played John Walton all throughout the series run, until it went off the air in 1983. He went on to act in other projects but ultimately decided to enter politics.

For many fans, Waite is at his best when he is playing the family patriarch John Walton — still, there were some other actors who were considered for the role before Waite was cast. 

Why did Henry Fonda turn down the part of John Walton on ‘The Waltons’?

Jane Fonda with father Henry Fonda
Jane Fonda with father Henry Fonda | Saxon/IMAGES/Getty Images

When The Waltons was still in the early stages of casting, some big-name actors were considered for the role of John Walton. According to an interview with Lee Rich, the showrunner behind The Waltons and several other successful shows, even screen icon Henry Fonda was in talks to star as John Walton.

Still, according to Rich, Fonda wasn’t terribly interested in the role. “We showed the pilot to Henry Fonda,” Rich said, “and afterward he turned around to me and said: ‘What do you want me for? The family is the star. You don’t need me.’ “

Fonda rose to fame in the forties, starring in movies like The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine. Praised for his ability to tackle rough roles, Fonda worked well into his golden years, and by the times the early seventies rolled around, he was considered to be a cultural icon.

There’s no doubt that Fonda would have brought a lot of star power to The Waltons — but the reason he turned the role down is more than valid.