The Waltons: Is the TV Show Based on Real People?

‘The Waltons’ story revolves around a Depression-era family in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. John Walton Jr. lives with his parents John and Olivia Walton, his grandparents Zebulon “Zeb” and Esther Walton, and his six siblings. The series chronicles the day-to-day lives of the Waltons as they manage their lumber mill and go through life’s ups and downs within their small community. Created by Earl Hamner Jr., the series features an ensemble cast comprising Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, Andrew Duggan, Michael Learned, Will Geer, and Ellen Corby, amongst others.

‘The Waltons’ is revered as one of the most culturally and historically significant shows. But with such a wide variety of content over the years (including several feature-length films), it is natural to wonder about the drama series‘ true origins. Well, if you are wondering the same, then you have come to the right place. Here’s everything we know about ‘The Waltons.’

The Real-Life Inspiration Behind the Show

No, ‘The Waltons’ is not a true story. The storyline is loosely based on a 1961 novel written by Earl Hamner Jr., the show’s creator, titled ‘Spencer’s Mountain.’ However, much of the character and story arcs have been inspired by Hamner’s real life, including his friends and relatives. In fact, the lead character of John Walton Jr. is based on Hamner himself.

Earl Hamner, who also provided the voiceover narration in the series as a middle aged John Walton Jr, mentioned in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation about how he would receive letters and messages from his relatives when the show first came out. “I thought some of the nicest things and the most reassuring things [at the time] was a note that I got from my sister Nancy which said ‘Thank you Earl for letting us relive our youth,'” Hamner said.

Earl Hamner Jr.’s life as a young man living with his family and growing up in Schuyler, Virginia, dictated both the character’s personalities as well as the direction ‘The Waltons’ went in as a whole. ‘Spencer’s Mountain,’ the original source material, was also written by Hamner while keeping in mind his life and his father’s dream of building his mother a home. “And then another one of my sisters, Marian, who was the [inspiration for] Mary Ellen character; uh, someone said ‘Where is Spencer’s Mountain?’ and my sister said it was somewhere Earl was happy,” the show’s creator continued.

But it is not just Hamner and his family who have been influential to the series. The cast themselves had a hand in the series’s formation as it continued airing. The character of Zeb Walton, John Jr.’s grandfather, was written out of the ‘The Waltons’ by having him die, which was reflective of Will Geer’s (the actor who portrayed Zeb) own passing.

The characters themselves were simply iconic in ‘The Waltons,’ and not just for the viewers but the actors as well. “I felt very privileged to play John Boy because I felt [that] this is attributed to Earl (Hamner Jr.) not to me — I just have the opportunity to play the part,” said Richard Thomas, who portrays the role of John Walter Jr. (Or John Boy, as he is called in the show). Thomas also went on to say that he felt that the character was extremely different in tone from every other male lead in other television series at the time.

“…To have a hand in creating a kind of leading actor role for a male in an American television series that ran counter to almost every other model; a feeling, sensitive — sometimes too sensitive — a delicate natured person who was neither, you know, a whiz kid or a doctor, a lawyer….you know all those role models, male role models. Nor was he, you know, the oldest son who’s a football star. I think there was a sort of subversive quality to Johny Boy that I was very much aware of,” Thomas continued.

Though not a true story, ‘The Waltons’ cultural impact on American television and the role it played in presenting an average American family without any exaggerations is something that is not easily replaced. The television series, set during World War II as well, also touched upon the theme of war and trauma and how it might affect not just those who fought in the war but their families as well after their return.

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