When actress Michael Learned took the role of family matriarch Olivia Walton for the depression-era family drama The Waltons in 1972, the 33-year-old actress had surprisingly little exposure on American television. Taking over a role originated by Patricia Neal in the TV movie The Homecoming, Michael had spent her career working on the stage, and the majority of her television experience had been on televised presentations of classical plays broadcast in Canada.
But with Olivia Walton, Michael found a role that would endear her to the hearts of multiple generations of viewers as one of pop culture’s most beloved television Moms. Gentle and wise, but with enough spunk to handle a houseful of growing kids, Michael brought both life and a sense of sensibility to The Waltons, which was a rare show that families could enjoy together, and which would continue to be a continuous to be a timeless hit with viewers through the years. The role would win her three Emmy Awards, and she’d gain a fourth one in 1981 for her role in the short-lived medical drama Nurse.
In 2019 Michael added another award to her collection when she won the award for Best Actress in a Dramatic Short at the 2019 Women’s Film Festival for her performance in Anya Adams’ Second Acts. A story about the love affair between a white woman and an African American man, played by character actor John Wesley, the film struck an emotional chord with audiences, and gave the message that love can conquer prejudice.
But despite this success, Michael has continued to perform on stage, and in recent years has made live theatre her focus. Appearing in national productions of Driving Miss Daisy and On Golden Pond, in 2020 she was to return to the role of Ethel Thayer opposite of another beloved TV veteran, Hal Lindon, at the Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia, CA. But like in theatre’s everywhere, the show was indefinitely postponed when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire world.
While waiting for the theatres to reopen, it was revealed that Michael will be returning to TV’s again. As this article was just about to go to press, Dateline and IMDB revealed that Michael will be playing another very different type of matriarch when she takes on the role of Catherine Dahmer, the grandmother of Jeffrey Dahmer, in the highly anticipated Netflix mini-series about the infamous serial killer, created by award winning producer Ryan Murphy and starring Evan Peters.
I had the great pleasure to talk to Michael about her work and how she’s been spending her time through the current pandemic. As lovely as you’d expect her to be, my conversation with Michael Learned revealed the heart of a true professional who is still dedicated to the art of acting.
Sam: It’s been crazy times all over the world with the pandemic. Are you navigating it well?
Michael Learned: We are doing fine. In fact, I had a test today and it came out negative, so I’m thankful for that. It’s just been a crazy time. We’ve never had anything like this that has been so worldwide.
Sam: But in its weird way it shows us that we are all in the same place as a society.
Michael: In some ways. Its both isolating and connecting. That’s interesting.
Sam: I was sent a wonderful photo of you and your granddaughter at one of the protests that was held in LA last year.
Michael: Oh yes. That was for “Black Lives Matter” at the Los Angeles City Hall. When we were there, in the beginning, it was very peaceful. It was lovely. It got a little testy later on though.
Sam: I think its great to see two different generations come together on the same issue despite a definitive gap.
Michael: Yes. My granddaughter is very dear to me. I have five wonderful grandchildren, but Aleta was living with us at the time because she was going to drama school here.
Sam: Your film Second Acts touched on issues of race, which came out at just the perfect time during a period of new racial tensions.
Michael: Well, it’s a love story between a white woman and an African American man. Its not really about racial strife, but its a love story. Race doesn’t matter between the characters, but it’s there visually. Its not something that he and I talk about in the film. We jusrt love each other. Our characters knew each other as children and weren’t allowed to play with each other, and then we rediscover each other later on and are able to be together in our declining years. It was a wonderful project to work on.
Sam: Well, it won you the Hollywood Women’s Film Festival Award for Best Actress.
Michael: Well, I have a whole bunch of awards. I was actually dusting them off today. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging but I have them and I don’t know if I deserve any of them but its very nice when they come your way. Its touching.
Sam: Well, its not just an award. I think of it more as a symbol of how much your peers as well as your audience appreciates and respects you.
Michael: Well, they do mean a lot to me. It does. But I feel grateful for anything and everything. As= I get older everything becomes a treat.
Sam: Well, I put a note on social media today and let my readers know that I would be speaking to you and the response was huge because your role as Olivia Walton is such a touchstone on the lives of so many people.
Michael: You know, I watched an episode of The Waltons just yesterday. I hadn’t seen it in a long logn time, although I know it’s been on the air. But I haven’t watched it. But I watched an episode yesterday from the first year, where John Boy goes to college and it was just wonderful. Oh my god, what a good show. I didn’t have much to do in it, but we all did something. Richard Thomas was just so fabulous. I am so lucky to have been a part of it.
Sam: I remember watching it in my 20’s with my mother, my younger brother and my grandmother. We’d all be very engaged despite being different ages and into different types of shows. There are few shows that can capture a cross section of viewers like that.
Michael: In the first five years of the show, [Walton’s creator] Earl Hamner was really telling stories. Every show was a story. It wasn’t action. It had a beginning, a middle and an end and it was about something. I don’t know what happened later as everybody grew up. It was difficult to maintain that same kind of innocence because the kids were not as naive. Some of that cuteness left, and it turned into a more mature kind of show.
Sam: One of the things that I thought was so fascinating with The Waltons, because most shows of its type would not dare go there, was the theological divide between Olivia and John Walton. Olivia was a devout Christian, but John was not and that would sometimes come between them. It made for very interesting storytelling. It was very real and very biting at times, yet so well handled because there never was a winter. The show left the decision to be with the viewer, while maintaining the dignity of the characters.
Michael: I loved that. If somebody’s winning, then somebody’s losing. I loved Ralph Waite, and he loved all of us. We all loved each other on The Waltons, and it showed. We still are a very loving family. We are thrilled whenever we were together again. I miss Ralph dearly. He and I went through a lot together. I think the chemistry showed on the show.
Sam: And he was a hell of an actor too.
Michael: He was. He really was. In the show I watched yesterday, at the end of one scene I just turn around and hug him and we embrace. Those things were never planned. We had that natural thing, and when the camera would roll, we’d just do that sort of thing. I remember once the camera wad rolling and I was going up the stairs and Ralph slapped me on the butt, and they kept it in. It was just a very real type of relationship that we had on the show, and I think it was because we truly cared for each other.
Sam: When I put up on social media, I was talking to you, many of the comments that came through was about how much they love you, and how you played their favorite TV mom. You’ve said a few things already in this conversation that reveals to me that you are very different than Olivia Walton. In what ways were you like Olivia Walton, and in what ways are you not?
Michael: That’s a question that would take me a long time to answer. I am obviously not Olivia Walton, but I brought parts of myself into the role. I baked bread when my kids were little. I made pies. I know how to do those things, do when and audience is watching someone kneading dough, they know that that person knows how to bake bread, I think there was an authenticity I brought to that role. I was actually a housewife and a mother, and I love my kids and I think that part of it wad really me. The love and the house life and the ironing. Those were things I did when I was married to Peter Donat and when we had no money. He was an actor, and I was an actor, and we were just starting. I was a real homebody. Sometimes I’d get work, but during the day I’d be doing the housework and taking care of the kids, and in the evening my brother-in-law would walk the baby when he was crying, and I’d go out and get on the subway and do a Chekov play and then get back on the subway and come home and nurse my baby and put him down to sleep. It was pretty normal. I’m not really part of the big Hollywood social scene. What I’m trying to say is that there is an authenticity inside of me that’s like Olivia.
Sam: One thing I find surprising about The Waltons is how much it was merchandized towards kids. Usually 1970’s marketers that were creating merchandise for kids would lean towards cartoons, pop stars, and science fiction and action shows. There was a surprisingly lot of Walton’s merchandise. I know that Mego made an Olivia Walton doll.
Michael: With the lunch boxes and toys, I don’t know if the lunch boxes and toys were that successful. I don’t know if they sold many. I know I didn’t see any of them when we were making the show. I don’t know if kids wanted the lunch boxes or not.
Sam: Well, I doubt they were as popular as the Star Wars or KISS lunchbox, but they must have had their niche.
Michael: I guess maybe somebody wanted one. I’ve seen the lunchboxes and they’re not bad. I don’t know. Somebody gave me a Walton’s game. I’ve never played it, but I have it as some kind of a relic.
Sam: You’ve made mention of doing Chekov plays. I know that you began as a stage actress, and that you are still heavily involved in live theatre. You were primarily a stage actress right up to being in The Waltons.
Michael: Absolutely. I had done a little bit of television when I was living in Canada, hear and there. There was a wonderful series that presented theatre on CBC and I had done a few of those. We did some Moliere and The Doll House. It was amazing. We were out in the snow with these television cameras. It was wonderful. But I hadn’t done film television. The Walton’s was on television, but it was mainly film.
Sam: Did you remain on stage throughout The Waltons.
Michael: I did, and I still am. I am still doing stage.
Sam: You just said that you lived in Canada. I didn’t know that. Where did you live? I’m located not far from Toronto.
Michael: Oh. Toronto is like my real home. Ne and Peter lived there through our marriage. I had my first-born son there. It’s like home to me. I would be happy back in Toronto. If I had my way I’d live in California from February to March and live the rest of the time in Toronto. Especially now because it’s a whole new city.
Sam: Well, maybe tonight wouldn’t be the best. We are having a giant snowstorm.
Michael: But isn’t that beautiful?
Sam: I guess, but its not good to drive in.
Michael: Well, that’s a drag. If you have to heat up the car and shovel it out, that’s something. But if its just a blanket of snow, I love it. I love it until February. I can handle it in December and January, but after February I want it to be all over.
Sam: In Canada live theatre is still shut down. Is it still like that in California?
Michael: Nothing is happening here. Very little filming too.
Sam: I read that you and Hal Lindon were supposed to be doing a production of On Golden Pond.
Michael: That’s right. We were going to do it in Petrolia. I’m still hoping that happen. I haven’t heard from them, so I hope they haven’t cancelled it altogether. Hal might not be available. I should give them a call and see what’s going on. This is not the first time I’ve done the part. I toured On Golden Pond once with Tom Bosley. We toured the United States. It was nice. He was wonderful. It’s really the man’s show, but I felt really close to Tom. We had a wonderful time.
Sam: I remember a few years ago you were in Ontario doing Driving Miss Daisy.
Michael: I did it in Edmonton, and then also some city outside of Stratford. I also did the show down here in Petrolia. I love the two producers in Petrolia, David Hogan and Dave Rogers. I love them. Their just great. I haven’t done Driving Miss Diary in a year, but I was doing it quite regularly. I love the play. I never get tired of it. I feel that’s what defines a classic when you never tire of it. I never get bored playing Miss Daisy.
Sam: As an actress, what is it that has helped you to be able to maintain a career playing such important roles through all the stages of your life, and if you were giving advice to young women today in stage or film, what would it be?
Michael: I think you need to have a certain kind of humility. I don’t mean being a doormat. I read somewhere that Winston Churchill said, “Humility is an accurate assessment of your assets in life and reliability.” I think my assets is I’m willing to go places. I’m willing to go to some little town and do a little play and stay in a little hotel. I think some people think that’s too much of a hardship, but I like to do it. It fills me up. I take my dog and my darling husband comes every two weeks and I’m working. I like to work.
Sam: So, it sounds like it’s the difference between the joy of acting vs. the joy of fame.
Michael: I don’t care of the fame. It’s nice I guess, but people don’t remember me half the time now. But really it doesn’t mean anything to me. But the work is fascinating to me, and the rehearsal is my favorite part every time. I love rehearsal. Its like solving a mystery. You ask yourself “Who is this person? What does Chekov mean with that pause?” Little things like that which I find exhilarating and fascinating to talk about and to be involved in.
My conversation with Michael went longer than presented, as we went from a formal interview and slipped into a more personal exchange, as we became two people talking about our lives and just enjoying each other’s stories. Although I found her to be as endearing as her most famous character, I found her to be a much different women than Olivia Walton. But she is just as lovely as I’d want to her to be and I cherished my talk with her and hope it won’t eb the last time we cross one another’s path.
At the time I booked the interview with Michael, I was told that there was an announcement on the horizon, but that it couldn’t be revealed. We now know that project was the upcoming Netflix mini series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. In private, Michael told me that she was sorry that she couldn’t discuss anything about the then unnamed project, but also expressed how excited she was about doing this miniseries, as arranged by her manager Gerry Pass (Chrome Entertainment( and agents Danita Florance and Mike Eisenstadt (AEFH\Pinnacle). I now can understand her excitement.
Watch out for Michael Learned, because there is more to come on the horizon.