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The actress talks childhood fame, skydiving and her role as Mary Ellen on The Waltons.

When The Waltons premiered on September 14, 1972, critics scoffed at the idea that a TV drama about a Depression-era family living in Virginia's rural Blue Ridge Mountains could survive past the first season. And, for awhile, the series did come perilously close to getting the axe, an uncomfortable fact that kept the cast and crew on their toes during those early months.

"For the longest time we were up against two of the most popular shows on TV—Mod Squad and The Flip Wilson Show," recalls 59-year-old Waltons star Judy Norton. "We were basically on the death block. The ratings were not good and the producers did a major grassroots campaign to gather an audience, particularly in middle America."

In the end, not only did the producers succeed in unearthing a loyal fan base to help revitalize its diminishing viewership, but the show went on to survive for nine seasons until its final bow in 1981. And, it should be noted, that impressive run doesn't include the five subsequent made-for-TV movies that reunited the Waltons family off and on throughout the 1980s.

Despite its sizable cast—11 series regulars making up three generations of the Waltons clan—each actor was given their chance to shine. One of the breakout stars was Norton who was a mere 13 years old when she signed on for the role of Mary Ellen, the rebellious eldest daughter of John Sr. (Ralph Waite) and Olivia (Michael Learned).

"I don't think I ever actually felt famous, which is probably a good thing," Norton says. "I think all of us, the whole cast, remained pretty grounded."

Norton and the rest of the cast had gotten their first taste of fame after the modest success of the 1971 TV movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story which eventually served as the unofficial pilot episode for The Waltons. The made-for-TV movie found a niche audience, which inspired Lorimar Productions and Warner Bros. to pursue the idea of turning it into a weekly television series. The cast was immediately onboard.

"I've always had a natural aptitude for performing although I'm sure I thought I was more brilliant than I actually was," Norton laughs when recalling the audition process for Mary Ellen. "Along the way, though, my skill set measured up to my confidence."

After the series' final curtain call, Norton avoided the usual pitfalls that befall former child stars. Driven by a desire to learn the various intricacies of the entertainment industry, combined with a passion for writing and directing, Norton carved out a niche for herself in the theatre world, even spending eight years in Canada as the artistic director for theatre production companies in both Winnipeg and Edmonton before moving on to write for film.

Later this year, Norton will debut not one but three indie films she wrote—Finding Harmony, Another Day in Paradise and Inclusion Criteria, in which she stars as a woman suffering from psychotic episodes.

From rebellious teen icon to a writer-director-producer. The Waltons clan would have been proud.

We caught up with Judy Norton to talk childhood fame, skydiving and her famous role on The Waltons. Click through to read the full Q&A.

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