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Whatever Happened To The Cast Of The Waltons?

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story," which introduced television audiences to the Waltons, a large family living in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains during the Great Depression. The TV movie, which earned three Emmy nominations (winning one), led to the Emmy-winning "Waltons" series, which ran from 1972 to 1981, and six reunion TV-movie between 1982 and 1997. Many of the actors who appeared as members of the Walton family in the TV movie reprised their roles in the series, including Richard Thomas (who played John-Boy Walton) and Judy Norton Taylor (who played his sister, Mary Ellen). However, Patricia Neal (Olivia Walton) and Andrew Duggan (who co-starred as her husband, John Sr., in the telefilm) were replaced by actress Michael Learned and Ralph Waite, respectively, for the series.

As the CW prepares a new version of "Homecoming" to celebrate the TV movie's semi-centennial, with a new cast tackling the iconic characters, now is a good time to look back and discover what happened to the original Waltons during and after their TV stardom.

Ralph Waite followed The Waltons with directing and politics

Actor Ralph Waite, who played John Walton, Sr. on "The Waltons," had a long career in features, as well as on television and the stage, prior to joining the cast of the CBS drama. He made his Broadway debut in the 1960 production of "Marathon '33," and his feature film debut in "Cool Hand Luke" (opposite future "Waltons" guest star Morgan Woodward) in 1967. Waite added more film roles in the 1970s, including the 1971 Jack Nicholson drama "Five Easy Pieces," the gritty "Trouble Man," and two features opposite Charles Bronson — "Chato's Land" and "The Stone Killer" — before joining "The Waltons."

Waite earned an Emmy nomination for "The Waltons" and a second for "Roots" in 1977; he also directed numerous episodes of the series, which helped to pave the way for his feature directorial debut with the 1980 feature "On the Nickel." Like many of his "Waltons" co-stars, Waite worked extensively on television after the series' conclusion, including multiple "Waltons" reunion movies and recurring roles on "Carnivale," "NCIS" (as Gibbs' father), and Bones (as Booth's grandfather). Subsequent feature appearances included "The Bodyguard" and "Cliffhanger"; he also ran unsuccessfully for the California seat of the U.S. House of Representatives on three occasions between 1990 and 1998. Waite died at the age of 85 on February 13, 2014.

Richard Thomas enjoyed lasting fame after The Waltons

The eldest son of the Walton clan, John Walton Jr., or "John-Boy," was a fictionalized version of series creator Earl Hamner, Jr,., who also served as the voice of the older John-Boy in the opening and closing narration for each episode. Richard Thomas played John-Boy in Seasons 1 through 6 of the series and three TV movie reunions of "The Waltons"; he was replaced in the role for Seasons 8 and 9 by actor Robert Wightman. After earning an Emmy Award and Golden Globe nomination for his performance on the series, Thomas worked steadily on television, including the TV movies and miniseries "The Red Badge of Courage," "Roots: The Next Generation," and the 1990 version of "It."

He also appeared in numerous stage productions, including runs on Broadway in "Fifth of July," David Mamet's "Race," and a 2017 production of "The Little Foxes," which earned him a Tony nomination. In recent years, Thomas has remained busy with recurring roles on "The Americans," "Billions," and "NCIS: New Orleans." He returned to features after a long absence in the 2021 Netflix drama "The Unforgivable," with Sandra Bullock.

Michael Learned earned three Emmys as Olivia Walton

As Olivia Daly Walton, Michael Learned oversaw her sprawling extended family for six seasons, during which she netted six Emmy nominations (winning three), and four Golden Globe Awards. Learned's Olivia was patient and gentle where her husband John could be tough, but she was also firm with her seven children and, when necessary, her neighbors on Walton's Mountain.

Michael Learned, who began her career on stage and television, left "The Waltons" at the end of the seventh season — her character's absence was attributed to health concerns — though she reprised Olivia for several "Waltons" reunion TV movies. In 1981, Learned starred in her own series, the CBS medical drama "Nurse," which earned her an additional three Emmy nominations and one award.

When the show ran its course after 25 episodes, Learned appeared in features like "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" and in recurring roles on "Scrubs" and several daytime soaps, including "General Hospital." In 2021, she joined the cast of Ryan Murphy's "Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" as Catherine Dahmer, the notorious serial killer's grandmother.

Will Geer was an activist before he was a TV star

Veteran actor and activist Will Geer played the Walton family patriarch, Zebulon Tyler Walton (a.k.a. "Pa" or "Grandpa"), from Seasons 1 through 6. The character, played by actor/ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in the pilot TV movie, was a font of tall tales and homespun wisdom, like all good grandparents. Geer's death between Season 6 and 7 also brought an end to the character, who died while engaged in one of his favorite pursuits: planting seedlings, a trait he shared with Geer in real-life.

Will Geer intended to become a botanist, but began acting on stage in the early 1930s. A dedicated activist, Geer toured the United States with folk singers Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives, even recording an album with Guthrie in 1956. His membership in the Communist Party, and refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, led to Geer's blacklisting in the 1950s and a forced halt to his acting career; in response, he built the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, which produced plays and performers for fellow blacklisters.

Geer's career rebounded in the 1960s with a Tony nomination for the 1963 musical "110 in the Shade." Film roles preceded his star-making turn as Zebulon Walton; he worked steadily on the program, as well as other series and in features, until his death at the age of 76 on April 22, 1978.

Ellen Corby was an Oscar nominee and script assistant

Ellen Corby, who played Grandma Esther Walton, was the only adult actor to appear in both "The Homecoming" and the "Waltons" series. Her combination of feistiness, warmth, and familial concern on the series earned her three Emmys and a Golden Globe, capping a long, diverse career in front of and behind the cameras in Hollywood.

Corby began acting in the late 1920s, though largely in bit and uncredited roles; she also worked as a script assistant during this period, until a supporting turn in the nostalgic "I Remember Mama" earned her an Oscar nomination in 1948. Corby worked steadily in features and television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, netting appearances in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and on dozens of series, including "The Andy Griffith Show" (as hubcab thief Mrs. Lesh), "I Love Lucy," "The Addams Family" (as Lurch's mother) and even "Batman."

Corby departed "The Waltons" in 1976 following a debilitating stroke which severely impacted both her speech and mobility. She returned briefly in 1977 and eventually rejoined the cast, albeit as a recurring character, for the remainder of the series and in five of the six reunion movies. Corby died at the age of 87 on April 14, 1999.

Jon Walmsley turned from acting to music

After relocating from his native England to the United States, actor/musician Jon Walmsley worked as a voice-over performer, most notably as the voice of Christopher Robin in the Oscar-winning animated Disney featurette "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day" in 1969. Three years later, he joined the cast of "The Waltons" as Jason, the second oldest son in the family. The role gave Walmsey the opportunity to showcase his talents as both a musician and songwriter in numerous episodes.

Walmsley reunited with his "Waltons" TV family for several TV movies, but devoted most of his energies to his career as a musician. A longtime member of Richard Marx's band, Walmsley also played with some of the biggest names in rock, pop, and country, including the Who's Roger Daltrey, Brian Setzer, the Doobie Brothers, and country legend Merle Haggard.

Walmsley also worked extensively as a session musician for multiple television series, playing tracks featured on programs like "7th Heaven" (on which he also guest-appeared as a band member), "Beverly Hills 90210" and "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."

Mary Beth McDonough is also an author

One of a handful of "Waltons" actors who appeared on the entire series and all six "Waltons" movies, Mary Beth McDonough played Erin Walton, the second-oldest daughter of the family. Most of Erin's storylines orbited around her romances, which invariably came to an abrupt end. The character eventually found her way as an assistant plant manager at a defense company during World War II.

McDonough — who has also performed under the names Mary Elizabeth McDonough and Mary McDonough — began her career as Erin Walton on "The Homecoming" and remained with "The Waltons" during its entire network run. After the series had run its course, she appeared in a handful of features, including the oddball horror movie "Mortuary" and the thriller "Funland," written by Bonnie and Terry Turner of "That '70s Show" fame. She was later a guest star on series like "ER" and "The West Wing," while also reprising Erin for the "Waltons" reunion movies.

McDonough enjoyed a recurring role on "The New Adventures of Old Christine" in the 2000s and also penned several books, including 2018's "Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane." The Hallmark Channel adapted the story into a made-for-TV feature that same year, casting McDonough in a small role.

Kami Colter traded acting for education

The youngest member of the Waltons clan, Elizabeth Walton shared her brother John-Boy's affinity for writing and literature, as well as a romantic streak similar to her sister Erin. Kami Cotler was cast as Elizabeth in "The Homecoming" and played her for the show's entire network run, as well as in six of the reunion TV movies.

Cotler appeared in a handful of projects prior to "The Waltons," including a short-lived sitcom called "Me and the Chimp" which paired  Ted Bessell from "That Girl" with a chimpanzee. When "The Waltons" ran its course. Cotler's interest in acting waned; as she said in a 2017 interview, "Most of the things I auditioned for were not well written, and I wasn't terribly eager to get those jobs."

Education instead became her primary interest. After earning her degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Cotler taught at schools in Virginia before returning to California to teach. She has also served as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Environmental Charter Schools.

Joe Conley juggled real estate and The Waltons

Holding down the general store, post office, and auto repair shop on Walton's Mountain was good-natured Ike Godsey, played by veteran character actor Joe Conley. Many of the plotlines in the 172 episodes that featured Ike focused on his marriage to Corabeth Walton (Ronnie Claire Edwards), second cousin to John Sr. and as introverted and stubborn as Ike is outgoing and generous.

Conley began acting as a child on radio, but paused his career for college and military service in the Korean War, during which he was wounded. He returned to performing with a small role in the 1950 film "The Sound of Fury," and would work steadily on television while also supporting himself through his own real estate agencies. Conley was prepared to fall back on his second career when he was cast as Ike in 1972.

He remained with the series until its conclusion in 1981, and he returned to his lucrative real estate work while also re-teaming with his "Waltons" castmates in the reunion movies. Conley also made occasional appearances outside the "Waltons" universe, most notably in "Cast Away" in 2000. Conley died of complications from dementia at the age of 85 on July 7, 2013.

Ronnie Claire Edwards was eccentric Corabeth Walton

On the surface, Ronnie Claire Edwards' Corabeth Walton is a world-class pill: tight-fisted with money, given to putting on airs around her extended family, and deeply eccentric. However, Corabeth's personality quirks are the result of a long time spent in isolation while caring for her sickly parents; once on her own, it takes Corabeth a while to learn the rhythms of life on Walton's Mountain, but with the help of her family and especially husband Ike Godsey, she becomes a well-loved figure.

Ronnie Claire Edwards, who played Corabeth from 1975 to 1981, appears to have been as outgoing as Corabeth was introverted (at first). In her early years, she traveled with a carnival throughout her native Oklahoma as a knife thrower's assistant and also performed at mining camps. Edwards's acting career began on the New York stage in the early 1960s; television and films, including "The Waltons" and a recurring stint on "Designing Women," followed from the 1970s through the early 2000s.

Edwards retired from acting in 2007 and began restoring homes in Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas. She also wrote several plays, as well as an autobiography and cookbook. Edwards died at the age of 83 on June 14, 2016.

Peggy Rea handled motherly duties in Seasons 8 and 9

With the departure of Richard Thomas and Michael Learned in Seasons 6 and 7, and Ralph Waite reduced to a recurring character in Season 9, the Walton children were in need of a parental figure. Enter Rose Burton, a cousin of Olivia's, who arrives on Walton's Mountain in need of a place to live with her children after fleeing an abusive husband. Rose and her kids eventually move into the Waltons' home, and she finds a more lasting relationship in an old flame (played by William Schallert), who settles down with her.

Peggy Rea played Rose Burton in Seasons 8 and 9, as well as one TV movie. She began her career on stage before moving into television in the 1950s; roles on "I Love Lucy" led to recurring appearances on "Gunsmoke," "All in the Family," and in 1979, a stint on "The Dukes of Hazzard" as Boss Hogg's wife, Lulu.

Rea remained active on TV well into the 1990s, through recurring roles on "Step By Step" and "Grace Under Fire." She died at the age of 89 from complications of heart failure on February 5, 2011.

Busy character actor Tom Bower broke Mary Ellen's heart

Character actor Tom Bower played what was arguably one of the most scandalous personas on "The Waltons": Dr. Curtis Willard, who captured the heart of eldest Walton daughter Mary Ellen (played by Judy Norton Taylor) in Season 5. The couple marries and has a son, John, before Curtis joins the military. Tragedy appeared to strike in Season 7 when Curtis is declared a casualty during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Mary Ellen discovered in Season 9 that her husband was still alive but deeply traumatized from his war experiences. The couple divorced, and Mary Ellen married an old flame in the second reunion movie.

Bower — who also played a stunt pilot on "The Waltons" before signing on as Dr. Willard — has been a familiar face to TV viewers since the early 1970s. He joined the cast of "The Waltons" in 1975 and remained with the series until 1978, but also worked at a breathless clip before, during, and after his run on the program. His list of credits — which continues growing to this day — includes appearances in TV series ranging from "The Bionic Woman" and "Murder, She Wrote," to "Monk" and "Ray Donovan." Though he has fewer feature credits, they do include some major hits like "Die Hard 2" and more recently,  "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story."

A pre-fame John Ritter guested as Reverend Fordwick

The Reverend Matthew Fordwick arrives in Season 1 of "The Waltons" to serve as the first Baptist minister on Walton's Mountain. A recent seminary graduate, Fordwick takes a hardline approach to his role and his flock, whom he regards as sinners — until he gets accidentally drunk during a visit with his cousins, the Baldwin sisters. From there, Fordwick adopts a more kind-hearted approach, which helps him meet and eventually marry Rosemary Hunter, the local schoolteacher.

John Ritter played the Reverend Fordwick from Seasons 1 through 5 of "The Waltons." He departed the series in Season 6 to take the role that would elevate him to stardom: Jack Tripper on "Three's Company." He would remain a small screen favorite for the next two decades, thanks to series like "Hooperman," "Hearts Afire" (which netted him an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination) and "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." He would also appear in such movies as "Bad Santa," "Sling Blade," "Skin Deep" and the first two "Problem Child" flicks. 

Ritter fell ill on the set of "8 Simple Rules" and was rushed to a hospital in Burbank, California. Complications from an aortic dissection led to his death on September 11, 2003 at the age of 54.

Western vet Morgan Woodward was Grandpa's ornery cousin Boone

Not every member of the Waltons clan was as big-hearted as John-Boy, Olivia, and the others. Case in point: Zeb's cousin, Boone Walton (played by Morgan Woodward), a loud-mouthed cuss who seemed to attract trouble like a magnet. He first appears in the two-part Season 3 episode "The Conflict," where he enflames already heated tensions between mountain folk and the government over a road project. Boone returns in Season 7's "The Moonshiner," in which Jason defends him after an arrest for making illegal liquor. Neither situation ingratiates him with the Walton family.

Woodward, a Texas native, trained as an opera singer but moved into acting after a former schoolmate, Fess Parker of "Davy Crockett" fame, got him a role in the 1956 Disney film "The Great Locomotive Chase." TV Westerns were his primary showcase  — he appeared in countless episodes of "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train," and "Bonanza" — but Woodward also turned up in two episodes of "Star Trek," donned heavy makeup to play a lizard warrior in "Battle Beyond the Stars," and terrified viewers as the sunglass-wearing boss in "Cool Hand Luke." He also recurred many times on "Dallas" as Marvin "Punk" Anderson, an advisor to the Ewings.

Woodward capped his career as an elderly serial killer on a 1995 episode of "The X-Files." A staple of Western-related events for the next decade, he died at the age of 93 at his home in Paso Robles, California, on February 22, 2019.