The Big Lebowski once appeared on Walton's Mountain, as the first writer John-Boy ever meets
Richard Thomas said his episode with David Huddleston was one of his favorites.
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"Are you a writer?" John-Boy marvels when he meets A.J. Covington in The Waltons episode "The Literary Man." The episode finds John-Boy in utter awe to have a real writer in his company, and this "real" writer A.J. takes advantage of the boy's enthusiasm by becoming pretentiously prescriptive on the best way for John-Boy to become a writer, too.
"The writing has to come first," A.J. tells John-Boy. "Leave kith and kin behind without ever looking back."
For this episode, A.J. Covington is played by David Huddleston, who you likely recognize from his iconic comedic roles as the actual Big Lebowski in The Big Lebowski and Mayor Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles. He's an amazingly memorable character actor who once humbly told the Santa Fe New Mexican of his impressive acting career, "I've had a very, very, very good run at this stuff."
For Richard Thomas, the actor who originated the role of John-Boy, he said Huddleston remained one of his favorite guest stars on The Waltons, right up there with Sissy Spacek and Ron Howard.
Huddleston's part was particularly juicy because the episode that he appears in has an extremely meta plot that ends with Huddleston's character urging John-Boy to basically create The Waltons:
"Don't waste your life searching for the one big story you were born to write. Write the little stories. Who knows, the sum total of them might be the big one. Write about Walton's Mountain, your feelings about your family and this place, just the way you've been doing. Write about how it is to be young and confused and poor, groping, but supported by a strong father and a loving mother, surrounded by brothers and sisters that pester and irritate you, but care about you. Try to capture that in words, John-Boy. That's as big a challenge as the Klondike or the white whale or flying the Atlantic Ocean alone. It was too big for me, but I think you just might be up to it."
Since John-Boy is a character inspired by Earl Hamner's real life, this is essentially the moment on the show where Hamner playfully reimagines the impetus for The Waltons itself, the very show we're watching.
By the end of the episode, A.J. leaves the mountain, and we're led to believe he'll never come back, which is in line with the mythology of his wayfaring character.
However, three years later, A.J. Covington did return to Walton's Mountain, but unfortunately, he was not played by David Huddleston.
In "The Abdication," A.J. is played by the actor George Dzundza, who stepped into Huddleston's shoes. Perhaps Huddleston was just too busy for TV after appearing in Blazing Saddles?
If that's the case, we can be sure there are no bad feelings about giving away his role on The Waltons, since Huddleston has said of his time on Blazing Saddles, "It was probably the most fun I ever had on a set."
Or maybe The Waltons called and Huddleston just turned down the part, because there weren't enough good lines. We're just speculating here, but that's what he did when Mel Brooks offered him the role of the mayor in Blazing Saddles, prompting Brooks himself to call Huddleston and demand to know how he could be so bold: "You'd turn down a Mel Brooks picture?" Huddleston told him there just wasn't enough of a part there for him.
Famously, Brooks then had Huddleston over for lunch and they went through the script. Brooks let Huddleston take any lines he wanted from other characters until the part of the mayor was big enough for him to say yes.
If you've seen The Big Lebowski, you know that Huddleston was a character actor who always seemed to carry a twinkle in his eye. A similar winking pomp can be found in his portrayal of A.J. Covington, who delivers many incisive lines to inspire John-Boy to doubt he has what it takes to become a writer on The Waltons. On re-watch, the episode is every bit as fun as Thomas remembered.
Thomas loved rising to the level of great actors who guest-starred on his show, and Huddleston honed his chops as an actor doing movies with stars like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Bette Davis. Huddleston was never the star like Thomas, but always a supporting actor.
Looking back on his career, Huddleston definitely said he loved performing with the greats just like Thomas, but he also had a fondness for his early days on Westerns, including his four appearances on Gunsmoke.
"I loved doing particularly the Westerns," Huddleston told Roanoke.com.
Western TV fans, just like Thomas, held a special place in their hearts for Huddleston, likely a little more familiar with his range than fans of his cult movies. Huddleston once told the Santa Few New Mexican that Western fans still approached him when he was out doing errands like grocery shopping. In the interview, he warmly recalled a recent event where a young fan told him, "I saw you in Gunsmoke last night and you were damn good."
That's the essence of being a classic TV fan right there: connecting all the dots on where the best character actors come from, and as this fan in the grocery store could see as plainly as any of us, Huddleston was definitely one of a kind, and one of the best.