Michael Learned's real ex-husband played her old flame on The Waltons
The Waltons mom married actor Peter Donat as a teen. They divorced right before The Waltons started.
For The Waltons episode "The Prize," one of Olivia’s old flames returns, causing the Waltons matriarch to pause and consider if she chose the right suitor to marry in the end.
Surprise! – for anyone who doesn’t know – to play the role of Olivia’s old flame, The Waltons cast Olivia actor Michael Learned’s real-life ex-husband Peter Donat, who she divorced right before the show started in 1972.
Learned met Donat as a young girl, working as an apprentice at a Shakespeare festival in Connecticut.
The pair fell in love and decided to marry, but Learned’s parents sent her to school in England that year, and the couple had to wait to wed until she returned the next year.
From that point on, Michael and Peter became inseparable, starting their family but continuing to be active as actors who frequently performed together. Times were tough, but they had each other.
"Peter and I played Off-Broadway when I was pregnant," Learned told The Press-Telegram in 1972. "I was still nursing my second baby when we did Chekhov. We were living on $80 a week with two small children in New York."
After their wedding, both Learned and Donat appeared on TV, but both struggled to get offered meaty roles until the 1970s.
"I’m a character actor who doesn’t look like one," Donat told The San Francisco Examiner in 1970, just as his career started taking off.
For Learned, her career didn’t take off until after they divorced in 1972, when she got called in to do her very first screen test ever and landed the role of Olivia Walton.
Famously, Olivia Walton was the last Walton family member cast.
"I tested for the part on June 19, and we started shooting on June 28," Learned said. "I was really lucky. It was my first Hollywood screen test."
Adjusting to life as a single mom was tough for Learned, who said she once dreamed of having many kids like Olivia. Settling into Hollywood life with her three boys took a lot out of her as it was, though.
"Los Angeles terrified me," Learned said.
After some time, Learned got used to L.A. and then in 1973, had gotten past any hard feelings from the divorce and was ready to welcome her former husband to play across from her again, this time as her former beau on her hit show.
Donat only appeared on The Waltons once.
Both ended up remarrying, him once, and her three more times before she met the one.
When The Waltons started, Learned’s oldest son refused to watch his mom’s show, but he and his friends always teased Learned when she came home from set, proclaiming, "Here comes the star."
Her younger sons became some of her biggest fans, though, watching every week.
Their unbridled, pure enthusiasm for the show was what made her feel like a star for the first time in her life.
"My little boy tells me, 'Every time I hear that music, I feel happy,'" Learned said.
We know what Learned’s son means. Who doesn’t get happy hearing The Waltons theme song?