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Michael Learned — or “Miss Michael Learned,” as she was credited on The Waltons, lest anyone confuse her for a man — holds the record for most Emmy wins for outstanding lead actress in a drama series.
Three of those came for her work on The Waltons; she played matriarch Olivia Walton on the CBS drama, which ran for nine seasons beginning in 1972. The show, which followed the lives of a wholesome family living through the Great Depression in rural Virginia, was created by and based on the life of TV writer Earl Hamner Jr. (who died in 2016 at age 92).
Hamner got his start writing for The Twilight Zone before striking it big with shows like The Waltons and Falcon Crest. Learned, then 32, had been living in San Francisco and going through a very difficult divorce from her first husband, actor Peter Donat, when she landed the part. She had put her three sons in the car and driven to L.A., “just to get to know the city in case an audition came up,” Learned, now 81, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“I was staying at a cheap motel for 12 bucks a night. I was an emotional wreck.”
An audition did come up: Her agent convinced her to read for Olivia, a part Learned felt she was wrong for. But she went anyway and “got to test with Richard Thomas and Ralph Waite. It was like acting with two other [real] actors.” All three were cast — Thomas as her son, John-Boy, and Waite as her husband, John Sr.
By its second season, which premiered Sept. 13, 1973, The Waltons was the second-most-watched series on TV. Four months earlier, at an Emmys hosted by Johnny Carson, the show won outstanding drama, outstanding leading actor in a drama for Thomas and outstanding leading actress in a drama for Learned. In announcing her win, the presenter, James Franciscus (Mr. Novak), mispronounced her name as “Michelle” — which she quickly corrected at the podium.
“I’m stunned,” Learned said. “And the name is Michael.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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