Peggy Rea filled the mom gap when Michael Learned left The Waltons
Complete strangers on the street requested hugs from the Rose Burton actor.
When you watch The Waltons episode "The Waiting," there’s a bunch of foreshadowing that Rose Burton is about to take over the maternal role on the Mountain.
In the episode, Olivia and John leave town to go see John-Boy in the hospital after he’s fallen into a coma. It’s Thanksgiving, and Rose must pick up the slack in Olivia’s absence by making the family meal and attempting to cheer up the kids.
Rose Burton is Olivia’s cousin, and when she arrives on the show, Olivia is still in the picture, but after "The Waiting," the actor playing Olivia, Michael Learned, famously left The Waltons.
The Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Jr. intentionally created this passing of the baton moment over the Thanksgiving table, knowing that Olivia’s departure from the show would leave a huge gap in the heart of The Waltons’ sincere brand of family drama.
Hamner told The Journal News in 1979 that he chose to bring in Peggy Rea, who plays Rose, because "Once Michael has left, we’ll need a maternal force on the series – and Peggy Rea will be it."
Rea was indeed a "maternal force," and she said after she played the character, complete strangers would approach her on the street, expecting her to be just as maternal in real life.
"I wouldn’t have missed that experience on The Waltons for the world," Rea told the United Feature Syndicate in 1982. "Even now, complete strangers come up to me on the street and hug me. I was on it for two years, and I couldn’t have been luckier."
Earlier in Rea’s acting career, she juggled character work with her secretary jobs for MGM and Gunsmoke’s TV production company.
It’s said that sometimes her boss would come to her desk and find her answering phones in complete stage makeup. He found this quality endearing and this made it possible for her to make it to auditions.
Rea found success landing early TV roles on every hit show in the Fifties and Sixties.
She proved herself a funny character actor and even got to be the nurse who rolls Lucy out from her hospital room after she had her baby on I Love Lucy.
In her career, she’s likely best known for playing Rose Burton on The Waltons and Lulu Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard. Both roles were offered to her in 1979, after 25 years of bit parts in TV and movies.
She retired from screen acting in 1998, ending a tremendous career as a character actor with a recurring role on the hit comedy Grace Under Fire.
Rea attributed her acting success to the boundless joy she got from performing. That joy was probably what made it all worth it when she was just a secretary, applying stage makeup for her gig of the week as she worked her day job.
Her boss once joked that he had hired the secretary with a thousand faces.
"I’m just an incurable ham," Rea told the Fort Lauderdale News in 1965.