John Ritter was the opposite of his Waltons character on set
Judy Norton liked the actor playing Matthew Fordwick so much pretending to be scared of the stern reverend took a lot of acting.
Many actors, especially early in their careers, do their best work when playing characters with personalities similar to their own. When a performer can put huge parts of themselves into a character, it always makes things more believable and fun for the audience.
Will Geer, for example, essentially was Grandpa Walton. His playful personality, his affection for the cast and even his love of plants were all ways actor and character blended together.
But sometimes, particularly when it comes to characters who aren’t very nice, the person behind the scenes is very different from the one on camera. And speaking of The Waltons, the show’s first preacher, Matthew Fordwick, was one of those characters played by an actor with a totally opposite personality.
A young actor named John Ritter was cast as Reverend Fordwick. Of course, he went on to TV stardom in Three’s Company and other favorites, but The Waltons gave Ritter his first major recurring role on television, something Earl Hamner Jr. was very proud of.
Reverend Fordwick is introduced in the episode "The Sinner" as a devout student of God fresh out of school. He comes to Walton’s Mountain ready to whip the congregation into shape and cast out any sin, but a taste of the Baldwin sisters’ family recipe puts his plans in jeopardy.
In one scene, before the good preacher samples some authentic Appalachian moonshine, Reverend Fordwick scolds Mary Ellen for cursing. Judy Norton, who played the oldest Walton daughter for all nine seasons, remembers really having to act intimidated by Fordwick because she liked John Ritter so much off camera.
In a YouTube video as part of her series revealing behind-the-scenes memories from the show, Norton recalled John Ritter as a "fun-loving" and "lovely person." She continued, "He is incredibly believable as this intense and earnest young reverend in training and when he goes off on us, we’re supposed to be a little intimidated by it." She noted that it was important to be in character during this scene so her personal feelings about John wouldn’t show.
"To me, that was personally definitely acting because knowing John, I was not intimidated or scared by him as a person." She had to say to herself, "Okay, as a character, I’m intimidated."
Norton also remembered that John Ritter and John-Boy actor Richard Thomas were "two peas in a pod" joking together and pulling pranks on set. Ritter got to bring more of his delightful nature and comedic abilities toward the end of his first episode (after his visit to the Baldwin sisters) and Reverend Fordwick had a more relaxed approach in future episodes.