Producers on The Waltons tried making Olivia Walton look older

The casting description called for an actress in her early to mid-40s, with long, reddish hair. Michael Learned was the opposite.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

The producers of The Waltons originally wanted an actress in her early to mid-40s, with long and reddish hair to play the role of Olivia Walton. Who they chose, however, was Michael Learned. A 32-year-old actress with short blonde hair. 

Despite the producers' original description of Olivia Walton, Learned would go on to play Olivia for 168 episodes during The Waltons' nine season run.  She would also bring in three Emmy awards for her role on the series.

In a 1976 interview with Mount Vernon Argus, Learned talked about her first meeting with The Waltons' producers. According to Learned, the producers gave her the impression that she was all wrong for the role. But as she said: "There are no rules in Hollywood."

Learned was younger in real life than what had been envisioned for Olivia, so she spent the first two seasons of The Waltons being transformed in makeup and in clothing, making her look older than she actually was.

"They spent the first two seasons trying to make me look older, and the last two trying to make me look younger," she said. 

Her character's age wasn't the only thing that changed throughout the series. Many fans can recall Olivia in early seasons as more quiet and reserved. According to Learned, Olivia had come a long way since the first couple seasons.

"The character has changed: she participates more," she said. "The first two years I did a lot of coffee pouring and telling children to go to bed. She's a little less rigid now, has a few more weaknesses and strengths, and more point of view."

As her character changed in the show, Learned started to change outside of it. The Waltons did well in ratings, partially thanks to the deep bonds and unpredictable chemistry of the characters. According to Learned, it was the depiction of an American family that people related to. 

"We're all so jaded," she said in a 1973 interview with The Kokomo Times. "Our show goes another way, and often it's effective."

A lot of praise, awards and success for someone who didn't originally match the casting description. Maybe that's why they chose her. 

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17 Comments

CaroleThorpe 8 months ago
Are we going to ignore how they tried to age John Waite? They saddled him with those ridiculously overdone gray sideburns (poor job by the CBS makeup department) that mysteriously began to fade each year beginning around season 5 or 6 and all but disappeared by time he left the series. By the end of World War II, he actually looked YOUNGER than he did during the Great Depression!!!
Mblack 15 months ago
Gordon Pinsent here in Canada has died. I don't expect a MeTV story, but he had a long career.
Mblack 15 months ago
Women used to get married at a younger age. So despite John Boy, she could still be young.

The poor woman suffered from Polio and then Tuberculosis
LoveMETV22 Mblack 15 months ago
The poor woman suffered from Polio and then Tuberculosis
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You're referring to the story line after the seventh season?
Mblack LoveMETV22 15 months ago
I'm talking about the character. Polio in the Easter Episode in season 1. TB later which gave her a break.
LoveMETV22 Mblack 15 months ago
The TB part, I've read was used to explain her departure from the series, although she did make some guest appearances afterward to the series completion.
LoveMETV22 Mblack 15 months ago
There was a user a while back from Canada I think his/her screen name was "Michael". Haven't seen that user for a few months, (Just a share).
Mblack LoveMETV22 15 months ago
I think that's me. MeTV changed the commenting system, and I had problems registering, so I was gone for a bit.
LoveMETV22 Mblack 15 months ago
Oh, OK. Well welcome back then. Not aware of any changes to the Commenting System though, I've had the same screenname all along and haven't had to anything in that regard. Their CS has little glitches here and there but all in all they do a great job. Love their Stories and Quizzes.
Antenna2 Mblack 15 months ago
Also periods of melancholia or depression and possibly a breakdown, though they called that the change of life. I knew someone who had one, and the episode when John was desperately asking Livvy, "What's wrong?" but all she could do was run out of the house and leave for her childhood home, seemed more like a breakdown, not menopause. Livvy loved her family, but it took its toll on her frail health.
cperrynaples 15 months ago
I think the problem was that Patricia Neal did the movie and clearly Michael Learned didn't look like her! She did capture the essence of Olivia better than the actress in the CW movies!
cperrynaples cperrynaples 15 months ago
And seeing that picture of Ellen Corby reminds me of the old woman from "The Bewitchin' Pool"! And we KNOW who wrote THAT TZ....LOL!
Andybandit 15 months ago
Some characters of the 70's and 80's TV shows looked old in their 40's and 50's. Some characters in shows today look younger, the right age, or older in their 40's and 50's.
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