Michael Learned Played Olivia on "The Waltons." See Her Now at 82.
The actor says that at the time, joining the classic '70s show saved her life.
Michael Learned starred on the beloved '70s TV series The Waltons, a historical family drama that lasted nine seasons roughly spanning the decade. The actor played Olivia, the matriarch of the family, who at the time was affectionately considered "America's mother." Over the course of her career, Learned would go on to earn four Primetime Emmy Awards—three for her work on the show, and another for a separate series—making her one of the better-known TV stars of her time.
"We never thought for a minute that it was going to become what it became," she later said of The Waltons in an interview with Celebrity Page. "Now of course I feel incredibly humbled and grateful to have been part of it." Read on to see the famed actor now, and to learn what she's done in the four decades since the show wrapped.
Michael Learned has never stopped acting.
While Learned is best known for her work on The Waltons, she never stopped acting after the show wrapped in the early '80s. Shortly thereafter, she pivoted to starring in a slew of made-for-TV movies, including several Waltons specials. In 1980, she headlined opposite Brady Bunch star Robert Reed in a TV movie called Nurse, which was then adapted into a two-season series starring the pair. The actor would go on to earn her fourth Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress as a result of her work on the show.
In the years to come, she made appearances on Hothouse, Living Dolls, The American Revolution, Scrubs, General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, and more. Most recently, she worked on the TV miniseries Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which is slated for release in 2022.
Learned says that whether it's film, TV, or theater, her work is still her passion—even in her 80s. "I love to work. When I'm at home all I do is housework and grocery shopping—it's so boring! So when I go away to work, I feel alive again," she said in a 2019 interview with Fox News.
She says playing Olivia on The Waltons saved her life.
The Waltons is remembered as a wholesome family show, so some viewers are surprised to learn that Learned was going through a particularly dark time when the series began. "I was going through a divorce, I was drinking too much and I came down to L.A. and I was full of fear because I had been married since I was 17," she recalled in her interview with Fox, adding that she had three teenage children to raise at the time.
By the sounds of it, the audition itself could have easily gone another way. "I was scared to death, I was just shaking, and I was hungover—auditioning for the 'mother of America,'" she recalled of her first meeting with the casting directors.
Luckily, joining the show proved to be exactly what she needed to lift herself from that state. She told Fox News that without being cast, she might not have overcome her addiction to alcohol. "It was a rough time in my life, and getting that show not only helped me financially, but it also got me sober. I knew I couldn't do a television show and take care of my kids, and do all of that and have cocktails at night," the actor admitted. Learned said that by joining the show, each area of her life improved. "It pulled me all together. It was a gift—I have two families now. I have my kids, and I have the Walton kids," she added.
Learned says the cast of the show was extremely close.
Learned has shared that the cast was close, and attributes the show's success to that chemistry. When asked what it is about The Waltons that continues to captivate viewers, the actor responded, "Family. And you know, it's touted now as if everyone was huggy, kissy and perfect, but it wasn't like that. We had a lot of imperfections as a family, and I think that's what people relate to." She added, "They don't relate to how perfect you are, they relate to the fact that you're flawed and you still carry on. That was the message of The Waltons."
In the same interview, Learned shared that she was especially close with Ralph Waite, who played her onscreen husband John Walton. "We were lovers—not physically, but emotionally and spiritually. We adored each other," she mused, adding, "We were like a married couple, but without all the baggage that you get when you're in a marriage." In fact, it was Waite who first prompted her to get sober at the start of the show. "I'm very grateful to him for that," she said.
She has a message to share with other older Americans.
In 2019, Learned starred in a dramatic short called Second Acts—a story about an interracial couple who reconnect and fall in love decades after being separated by their parents' prejudice. She said that beyond the film's important message on race, it also spotlights a necessary moral about aging.
"There is life after 60. There are people who can fall in love at an older age," Learned told Fox. "I think it's important because we don't really like old people in this country. In Britain—in the United Kingdom—Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, all those people… The women are kind of considered interesting and eccentric and fun. So I think it's terrific that this film is dealing with two older people who are falling in love again. It can still happen at our age."
Beyond the film, Learned's ongoing acting career proves life doesn't stop after middle age. Now 82, the actor has shown few signs that she'll slow down anytime soon.