Earl Hamner, Jr.: “The Waltons”

When I was growing up, I wanted to either marry John-Boy Walton or be John-Boy Walton. Mostly, I wanted to be him, wanted to write stories of my family.

Loving “The Waltons” as I do, I was sad to learn that Earl Hamner, Jr., died last Thursday at the age of 92. Hamner, of course, was the original John-Boy Walton and the creator of the hit television series based on his experiences growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

A novelist, television writer, and screenplay writer, Hamner was behind many well-known TV shows and movies. He wrote episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and wrote the screenplays for Charlotte’s Web, Heidi, and Where the Lilies Bloom. After “The Waltons,” he developed the long-running, prime-time soap opera “Falcon Crest.”

“The Waltons” grew out of a television special titled “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” which was based on Hamner’s 1961 novel, Spencer’s Mountain. The television special did so well that CBS decided to develop the special movie into what became an extremely successful series. It ran from 1972 (when I was 12) to 1981. I’ll admit that by the time I was 21, I had lost interest in “The Waltons,” and as it grew further afield from its origins, I suspect other Americans had lost some of their interest in the program as well.

It’s those first few seasons – set in Appalachia during the Great Depression – that I recall so well. Though Hamner wrote only a few episodes, he continued to be involved as a creative director for the series, and he recorded the voice-over narration at the beginning and end of each episode.

Is the series based on Hamner’s real life? Many viewers have asked that question.

Born in 1923, Hamner was the oldest of eight children, rather than the seven children featured on the television show. The family lived in Schuyler, Virginia, but the television family lived on Walton’s Mountain. I traveled to Schuyler 25 years ago, and indeed there were parts of the small town that felt familiar. But the television show took liberties. The Hamners did not live in a house far from its neighbors but rather lived in a house right in town. If you want to see it yourself, you can take a virtual video tour of their home! Hamner’s father – Earl Hamner, Sr. – worked for a soapstone company, while the father in the television series owns his own lumbering operation. Hamner’s mother was descended from Italian immigrants, while Olivia Walton is very much of Anglo-Saxon stock. Despite these differences, the series stayed close to the spirit of Hamner’s experiences growing up in the close-knit family.

Ready to revisit “The Waltons” yourself? If you’re dying to remember a particular episode, you’ll love the Wikipedia page that includes a synopsis of every single show – and you can buy DVD sets of each season. If you want to learn more about the man behind the series, take a look at this 4.5-minute trailer for Earl Hamner: Storyteller, a film available on DVD. Other trailers and sneak peeks for the documentary are available here.

The last week has seen plenty of obituaries for Hamner. The official Earl Hamner, Jr., website features one by Hamner’s friend James Person. It includes the following narration, which bookended one episode of “The Waltons”:

Some men are drawn to oceans, they cannot breathe unless the air is scented with a salty mist. Others are drawn to land that is flat, and the air is sullen and is leaden as August. My people were drawn to mountains. They came when the country was young and they settled in the upland country of Virginia that is still misted with a haze of blue which gives those mountains their name. . . . In my time, I have come to know them. . . . I have walked the land in the footsteps of all my fathers. I saw yesterday and now look to tomorrow.

Though I’m sad to see Earl Hamner go, I’m happy to say that he and his character John-Boy Walton were true role models for me. I ended up becoming a writer, telling tales of my family. And like John-Boy, I can most frequently be found with a notebook, penning my stories. Thanks, Earl, thanks John-Boy, for the inspiration.

I join the Washington Post in saying, “Good night, John-Boy. Good night, Earl Hamner, Jr.”

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post! You’ll be entered into a monthly drawing to win a StoryWeb T-shirt if you do one of the following. 1) Subscribe to the weekly StoryWeb email, and leave a comment here (or on any other post!). 2) Subscribe to the StoryWeb podcast in iTunes, and leave a review on iTunes. (If you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review there, shoot me an email at linda@thestoryweb.com to let me know you did so!)

Watch:Watch Earl Hamner, Jr., answer the question “Am I John-Boy?” If you have time, you’ll want to dive into the Archive of American Television’s four-hour oral history interview video with Hamner. The link will take you to the section of the interview in which Hamner talks about “The Waltons.” And finally, there’s just no substitute for watching “The Waltons.” Here’s a clip from a 1975 episode in which John-Boy and Grandpa have a heart-to-heart up on the mountain.