Catching Up With…Judy Norton From ‘The Waltons’

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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.

Judy Norton (bottom left) with three generations of her TV family.

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.”

Ralph Waite in The Waltons.

On the 2014 death of Waltons costar Ralph Waite…
“Ralph was very mercurial. He had a lot of things in his personal life that he struggled with, so he had a dark side. But when we would be filming around the kitchen table, he’d be full of energy and often tell us bawdy jokes. He had this great laugh and these twinkly blue eyes that he referred to as ‘the baby blues.’ He was larger than life in moments like that. Once, we were interviewed as a cast and asked who our favourite character was on the show, so I talked about Ralph. Watching the relationship between him and Michael Learned [who played his wife, Olivia] was just so endearing and I always felt like his character was a tremendous role model. I felt Ralph was so underrated as an actor. He was honest and earnest in his portrayal of John Sr. Everyone wanted him to be their dad—someone who could be tough, but also loving. I understand why viewers wished they could be part of the Waltons, and a lot of that was because of Ralph and his performance. He was part of my second family.”

On once holding two skydiving world records…
“I did skydiving and the flying trapeze for Circus of the Stars [in 1984]. I had just come back from doing a musical production and my agent told me the show’s producers were looking for someone willing to try wing walking and skydiving. So I said ‘yes’ and decided to think about the consequences later. I was a little concerned about landing wrong while skydiving, but I decided that if I was too scared to jump it’s not like they were going to push me out of the plane. (laughs) So I only had one toe in on this project the whole time. It took four weeks of training and I still remember the first day—it was six or eight hours of safety training. About halfway through the day I thought, ‘How was I just worried about spraining an ankle on landing when I could die doing this?’ (laughs) It was during that first day of training that it really hit me. The first jump was a roller coaster of emotions—talk about having your stomach jump into your throat. But by then I was hooked and kept jumping on my own—I wound up skydiving for another 10 years afterward and was involved in a couple of world records. They’ve since been broken, but at the time I held one for the largest formation of women, which was 60, and then the largest formation of men and women, and there was 220 of us. When I was pregnant with my son, I thought I might get into it again down the road, but when you’re raising a small child, time is not your friend. (laughs) So I decided to be a responsible parent and not risk killing myself jumping from planes. But I’m sure it would come right back to me if I tried again, just like riding a bicycle. 

On her Canadian connection…
“Well, my father is originally from Hamilton, Ont. and I still have relatives who live in Ontario. But in 1991, my former husband was working for the Celebrations/Jubilations theatre companies in Winnipeg and Edmonton and I got a call from him telling me that they were looking for their next shows because the artistic team had moved on. He asked if I wanted to come up with a concept, so I did. The producers said yes and I took on the writing and directing role for the company. And, since my former husband was Canadian, I was able to move up to Winnipeg from California with my landed immigrant status. I wound up working for the company for eight years, but when my husband I separated, I left. I’m such a California wimp, so I couldn’t handle the Winnipeg winters (laughs). But I transplanted to Vancouver for a couple years while prepping for other shows. I loved my time in Canada and learned a whole other side of the entertainment industry.”

On recoding her first album, Reflections (2016)…
“I had done a demo a number of years back, but I was having trouble committing to a set of songs and kept second-guessing myself. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I kept worrying about screwing up in the studio or picking the wrong songs, so it kept getting delayed. Eventually I just decided to record one of my live concerts. It wasn’t your traditional L.A. project, but one of these days I will specifically go into a studio and record something. Maybe Christmas music—I love Christmas songs.”

Catch The Waltons on VisionTV, weekdays at 5 pm (EST)/ 2 pm (PST).