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Michael Learned Wanted Her 'Waltons' Character to Be Imperfect — In Reality She Struggled to Raise Her 3 Sons

Bettina Dizon
Feb 16, 2022
05:01 A.M.
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Michael Learned achieved great success in Hollywood as a four-time Emmy Award winner while balancing her career with motherhood. She helped mold her most memorable role in “The Waltons” as an imperfect yet ideal mother.

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Born on April 9, 1938, Michael Learned was the eldest of six children and moved from country to country during her formative years. At the age of 11, she relocated from America to Austria and later resided in England to attend boarding school.

While away, she realized her dream of becoming an on-screen actress. While fulfilling her aspirations, Learned married Peter Donat at 17 and had three children. Although she had shoes to fill as both a wife and mother, Learned never gave up on acting.

A side-by-side photo of Michael Learned from years ago and recently. | Source: Getty Images

A side-by-side photo of Michael Learned from years ago and recently. | Source: Getty Images

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BECOMING AN ACTRESS

Learned studied her craft while caring for her family, and since Donat had the same passion for acting, they understood each other well. Together, they performed with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, where producer Lee Rich discovered Learned.

While performing in “Private Lives,” Rich approached the actress and cast her in her breakthrough on-screen role in “The Waltons.” It was then that Learned brought the character Olivia Walton to life and significantly contributed to the success of the highly-acclaimed drama and won several awards.

Sadly, her relationship with Donat did not last, and during her stint on the show, she married her second husband, Glenn Chadwich, and her third husband, William Parker. In 1991, she walked down the aisle again and tied the knot with John Doherty, whom she remains happily married.

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Michael Learned poses for a portrait in the 1970s. | Source: Getty Images

Michael Learned poses for a portrait in the 1970s. | Source: Getty Images

EXPERIENCE DURING “THE WALTONS”

Learned took on the role of Olivia, a family matriarch, alongside Ralph Waite, her on-screen husband, and Richard Thomas, her on-screen son. The actress shared:

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“Ralph and I worked very hard for the world to know that these two had a great sex life. They slept in the same bed. In those days, that was innovative. [...] She stood up for herself when she needed to.”

Olivia was also a loving mother who seemed like she had her life together. However, Learned wanted to make the character realistic with some imperfections. She played a vital role in forming Olivia’s traits.

Michael Learned as Olivia Walton on "The Walton's," June 16, 1978. | Source: Getty Images

Michael Learned as Olivia Walton on "The Walton's," June 16, 1978. | Source: Getty Images

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MOLDING OLIVIA WALTON

“You’ve got to have Olivia make a mistake and punish the wrong child or something a little more human,” she told the show’s creator, Earl Hamner Jr. She said: “I think that was part of the charm of the show – that we weren’t perfect – at least not in the first two years.”

When the cameras stopped rolling, Learned took on her most important role – being a mom to her sons. Unlike Olivia, Learned struggled with motherhood because of her busy work schedule.

Learned received three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress during her role in “The Waltons,” and another Emmy Award for her television show, “Nurse.”

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Michael Learned during Noel Coward's 'Blithe Spirit' at Ahmanson Theatre on December 14, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

Michael Learned during Noel Coward's 'Blithe Spirit' at Ahmanson Theatre on December 14, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

THE SHOW’S SUCCESS

Initially, she was told that “The Walton’s” wouldn’t have a second season, but when viewers warmly received and anticipated each episode, everything came together. “The critics were so sweet and kind about it,” she said. “They were raving about it, saying, ‘Please don’t let this show die.’”

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The show ran for nine seasons from 1972 to 1981, but the cast remained in contact even after its curtain call. In 2016, Learned reunited with her former co-stars to celebrate the series’ 45th anniversary. In an interview, Learned revealed why she chose to leave the show in 1979 before its end. She said:

“When John-Boy came back with a new face and a new voice, it was like something happened. I just couldn’t do it anymore, and also, I felt a lot of times I was sitting around for 14 hours saying, ‘More coffee John,’ The fact is, I was bored.”

Michael Learned during the Action on Film MEGAFest International Film Festival at the Rio Hotel & Casino on August 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. | Source: Getty Images

Michael Learned during the Action on Film MEGAFest International Film Festival at the Rio Hotel & Casino on August 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. | Source: Getty Images

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BEHIND THE SCENES

When the cameras stopped rolling, Learned took on her most important role – being a mom to her sons. Unlike Olivia, Learned struggled with motherhood because of her busy work schedule. There even came the point when one of her sons said:

“Why can’t you be more like you are on ‘The Waltons?’”

Learned’s sons were named Lucas, Chris, and Caleb, all of whom watched her become a mom to seven other kids on television and excel at it. Nevertheless, her sons loved her endlessly, “They would make me breakfast and bring it to me on a tray,” she once shared. “Sometimes, it was totally inedible.”

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LEARNED’S SONS

Not much information is known about her children. Two of them lived private lifestyles away from the camera, while Lucas followed in the actress’ footsteps in the entertainment industry.

Lucas is most recognized for his role on “Damien: Omen II” and is a member of the Director’s Guild of America. He has since directed campaigns for clients and stands as the CEO of the agency Tiny Rebellion.

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Outside of Hollywood, Lucas is the man behind successful companies such as TrueCar, LegalZoom, Hotwire, Ancestry, and eHarmony.

LIFE AMID THE PANDEMIC

Now in her 80s, Learned recently spoke about her life amidst the pandemic. According to the actress, days feel longer while in quarantine at home.

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“There’s been lots of checking in by phone,” she shared. “And a visit from my youngest son, Luke, in full mask and gloves.” Although she is blessed to be safe under her room, she feels her days are “sloth-like.”

Michael Learned during Noel Coward's 'Blithe Spirit' at Ahmanson Theatre on December 14, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

Michael Learned during Noel Coward's 'Blithe Spirit' at Ahmanson Theatre on December 14, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

She is also grateful for the frontline health workers who risk their lives to care for those infected and sympathize with those who have lost family members in this trying time.

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