‘The Waltons’: Michael Learned Reportedly Auditioned With Liquor In Her Pocket

The Waltons is a classic TV show and an important piece of television history. The show portrayed the effects of the Great Depression, and later World War II, on rural communities with subtlety and nuance while being able to draw in a massive audience.

The show focused on the eponymous family, and the role of the family’s matriarch, Olivia Walton, was played by actress Michael Learned. Olivia Walton was written as a wholesome and stable rock that the rest of the family could rely on. Michael Learned was, in some ways, similar to the character that she portrayed.

But despite the stability she portrayed on screen, this actress may have had some demons that she had to face in her off-screen life.

Michael Learned on ‘The Waltons’

The Waltons was a 1970s television drama series based on an Earl Hammer Jr. novel. It was based on a 1971 made-for-TV movie, which proved to be popular enough to gain a TV series.

The show takes place during the 1930s and 40s, starting near the beginning of FDR’s presidency and ending at the end of World War II. The Walton family live in an Appalachian community in Western Virginia, and they have to deal with the changing economy while trying to keep food on the table through a lumber mill and small-scale farming.

The show has an element of nostalgia; it shows a tight-knit family and community that rely on each other through the hardships of their era.

One notable aspect of The Waltons is that it did not shy away from discussing more serious issues. Family members all have to deal with the sociopolitical situations of the 1930s, and later, the effects of World War II.

On top of that, there were plotlines that reflected timeless family tragedies — the death of an infant, the effects of a stroke, and complicated relationships with religion. The Waltons may seem a bit trite and precious today, but it was more than fluff.

Michael Learned

Michael Learned
Michael Learned | Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

While Michael Learned had a few screen roles before she starred on The Waltons, The Waltons was her big television break. Before entering the world of acting, though, Learned was the child of a diplomat, and when she was 11 years old her family moved to Austria.

In Europe, Learned attended a performing arts school, which prompted her to pursue acting. Throughout the 1960s she and then-husband Peter Donat were prominent in the theater world, though by the 70s Learned was looking at a TV career.

Learned found massive success with The Waltons, and even earned a few awards. Her prominence from the show, experience, and skill led her to more film and television roles, and today, she’s a veteran of the industry.

Michael Learned’s secret struggles

Despite her success, Learned had demons to face. Though she had been married with three children throughout the 1960s, by 1972 she had divorced Peter Donat, had no money, and was struggling with alcohol addiction.

When she was being cast on The Waltons, she was in the midst of this addiction, as well as broke and living out of a motel.

Learned wasn’t the only member of the show who struggled with alcoholism. Costar Ralph Waite, who played John Sr., described himself as a “drunk on the side” while acting on the show.

But the story has a happy ending: both actors, while still working on the show, decided that they needed to get sober. Michael Learned was able to kick the habit, and today, she’s still sober.