Catching Up With…Judy Norton From ‘The Waltons’
Photo: Getty Images
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.
On getting her first taste of fame at the age of 13…
“I don’t think I ever actually felt famous, which is probably a good thing. It was a different time in the early 1970s when we did The Homecoming and then The Waltons. There was no such thing as social media and the show wasn’t filmed in front of a live studio audience so we were always isolated from our fan base. We just had our close-knit circle as a cast—we showed up, did our job and had fun together. It was a pretty normal life. Sure, we did interviews and promotions for the series but it wasn’t until years later that we got a real sense of the impact the show had. Nowadays, you know every little detail about your favourite shows and actors—the good, the bad and the ugly—because everyone is talking about it online and nothing in your life is private. But as a teenager during filming, I could make the same stupid mistakes as any other kid and not worry about it spreading all over the Internet. There were times where I tried to assert my own independence and tried to throw my weight around and acted like a bit of a brat, but fortunately it was in a contained environment.”
On auditing for the role of Mary Ellen…
“I got a call from my agent who told me a bit about the character—basically that she was a tomboy and the role was for a TV movie. I played a lot of sports as a kid, so I understood the character and easily identified with her. During the audition process, the producers had us do the scene in The Homecoming where the family is cracking walnuts together in the barn. The scene prominently featured Mary Ellen and involved a long speech from her about the world being so small and people being nothing, so I got to have a ‘moment.’ (laughs) I got called back and the casting directors brought the six of us into a room and they told us that we got the parts. It was incredibly unusual because you almost never get cast while still in the room. The only one who wasn’t part of that process was Richard Thomas because John-Boy was being cast separately.”
On finding out The Homecoming would be turned into a TV series…
“It wasn’t long into filming that we started hearing rumours that they might turn The Homecoming into a TV series. Being young, I had no idea what was involved in getting the greenlight from the studio to produce a series. I was young and naïve and initially thought maybe I wouldn’t do it because I’d miss my friends back home. (laughs) But that lasted for about five minutes before I realized it would be incredibly cool. It was a period in time when I think the networks were getting a lot of heat from the conservative Moral Majority group about there not being a lot of family programming on TV. During the first season it was a struggle. For the longest time we were up against two of the most popular shows on TV—Mod Squad and The Flip Wilson Show. 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 fact, we [the cast] were recently at the Walton’s Museum in Virginia when I noticed an old article framed on the wall with a headline that said something like, ‘This Show Is So Beautiful It Has To Die.’ (laughs) I didn’t have the chance to read the whole thing, but it was basically the producers saying the show was so kind and so gentle that it wouldn’t survive on TV unless people really got behind it and fought for it. Gradually, over the course of the first season, ratings began to improve.”
On what she loved most about playing Mary Ellen…
“I liked that she was rebellious. I probably was too, but didn’t always have the nerve to express it. I didn’t like to get in trouble, so I would tend to rebel on the inside. So being able to express that nature through a character gave me a safe way to be rebellious. (laughs) She fought back and was outspoken, and I enjoyed those characteristics.”
On the most memorable episode of The Waltons…
“The episode with the book burning had a big impact on us [“The Firestorm,” season five, episode five]. That whole scene with John Ritter and the townsfolk wanting to burn books and John-Boy making one of his impassioned speeches made the whole thing very emotional. Some episodes we filmed felt very real, and this was an example of that.”
On what makes The Waltons such an enduring classic…
“It has timeless values and it features the very best in human nature. If The Waltons had been set in the 1970s, the messages might have come off as too preachy or goodie-goodie. But the fact that it was a period piece and featured simple people living in a simple town, struggling through life, audiences were drawn to it. And, because there were three generations in the Waltons family, there was a character that everyone could relate to. It’s nostalgic and represents something that we don’t see in the world today; that sort of simplicity where you aren’t inundated 24/7 with news and danger. It allows people the opportunity to escape and, even if you’re crying by the end of an emotional episode, it’s cathartic. I’ve literally had fans come up to me and say, ‘You raised us. Your TV family raised us.’ To have that kind of an impact just doesn’t happen anymore.”