On screen they were a devoted married couple, one of the most famous in television history, as Olivia and John Walton in the hit CBS series “The Waltons.”
They were always surrounded by children with each episode reiterating the importance of family and love — but off screen their lives were far from the idyllic existence they depicted on the show.
“The Waltons” was a much-loved family favorite airing for nine seasons between 1972 and 1981.
Olivia Walton, played by Michael Learned, and John Walton, played by Ralph Waite, were a couple struggling through the Great Depression with seven kids and grandparents all living together in Walton’s Mountain, a fictional mountain community.
Learned and Waite had much in common when they were cast for the show. They both came from big families and this was their first big break in acting.
Learned was born in Washington D.C. but spent much of her childhood on a farm in Connecticut with her five younger sisters.
When she was 11 she moved to Austria and attended Arts Educational School, Tring, now Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Tring, Hertfordshire, in England where she discovered her love of acting.
But it wasn’t until she was 33 years old that she landed the role that she would be best known for, alongside her onscreen husband Waite, a man 11 years her senior who was also the eldest child of a big family who had grown up in White Plains, New York.
Waite had enlisted in the Marines after leaving school, attended college and worked briefly as a social worker before earning a master’s degree from Yale University and becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister.
He decided to switch to an acting career and after a number of movie and TV parts he landed the iconic role of John Walton in his mid 40s.
The two hit it off straight away and their onscreen chemistry made them an immediate hit with fans. Learned secured three Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Olivia Walton.
But while playing the picture-perfect family onscreen Learned’s personal life was one of turmoil. Her first marriage was to Canadian-American actor Peter Donat, whom she married in 1956 when she was 17 years old and had three sons with. They divorced 16 years later and it took two more marriages before she found a man she could be truly happy with.
Learned married Glenn Chadwick in 1974 which lasted for three years and in 1979 she married actor-screenwriter William Parker.
In a 2017 interview Learned admitted to being the victim of domestic abuse by a long-term partner who she wouldn’t name. She said after being choked by her partner she decided that she could no longer turn “the other cheek” and had to get away, as per Closer Magazine.
This wasn’t her only struggle in life as after her divorce from her first husband she became an alcoholic, something that Waite helped her to get through.
“I was drinking heavily when the show started, and Ralph saved my life. Really,” she said.
She explained how they often went out for lunch during their breaks, returning to the set feeling tipsy. After a while, Waite “straightened himself out,” urging her to do the same as she was drinking too much, so she took herself off to ex-husband Donat’s isolated cabin on the California coast to sober up and hasn’t drank since.
Waite also had his fair share of heartache marrying three times and admitting that the impact of his divorces were so great that he never allowed himself to consider marriage again.
The two did find happiness with their most recent marriages, Learned to lawyer John Doherty, 12 years her junior and Waite to Kerry Shear, 20 years his junior.
But in 2019, 5 years after Waite’s death, Learned finally admitted what fans had suspected all along; that she and Waite were deeply in love.
But even though the stars had a deep love for each other they never did anything about it out of their professional dedication to the show.
Learned told the Daily Mail they decided not to pursue the romance as it could ruin the hit series and “get messy.” Instead, Learned insisted they cherished a close friendship that lasted until Waite’s death in 2014 at age 85.
“We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken that extra step, and we didn’t,” said Learned.
“We never did. We thought about it, but we didn’t. And I think that’s why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will, and I miss him terribly. His wife is a very good friend. But what Ralph and I had was something that came across on screen.”
Their chemistry is clear to see onscreen but to not take their feelings any further shows their dedication to a show that has delighted millions over the years and is still shown on TV today.
I’m glad these two finally found love in the end.
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