'The Waltons' Star Michael Learned Struggled to Raise Her 3 Sons after Divorce Left Her Living in Motel and Battling Addiction

Famous actress Michael Learned had such a hard time raising her three sons after her tumultuous divorce; one of them asked why she could not be more like the character she portrayed on "The Waltons." Get familiar with the life she lived. 

"The Waltons" is a popular TV drama based on a Depression-era family living in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. 

It aired from 1971 until 1981, but its impact on the lives of those who viewed and those who acted is palpable. Michael Learned played the role of Olivia Walton, a mother of seven, on the show. 

Michael Learned on "The Waltons" | Photo: Getty Images

Michael Learned on "The Waltons" | Photo: Getty Images

When she joined the cast, she had been in her early 30s and was already a mother herself to three sons, all of whom she shared with her first husband, Peter Donat. 

Her relationship with Donat ended in a tumultuous divorce that left her living in a motel and battling an alcohol addiction. Luckily she met a man who derailed her addiction, and though they were deeply in love, they chose not to act on it. Here are the details. 

Michael Learned takes a portrait in the 1970s | Photo: Getty Images

Michael Learned takes a portrait in the 1970s | Photo: Getty Images

THE MAN WHO SET HER STRAIGHT

His name was Ralph Waite, and she first met him during her audition for the role of Olivia Walton. According to Judy Norton, who played one of Learned's TV kids, there was immediate chemistry between her, Waite, who played her TV husband, and Richard Thomas, who played another child of Olivia's. 

There was initial concern from male executives who feared Learned looked too young to play the role of matriarch. However, the "attraction" between her and Waite helped them stick with the decision as they made the scenes "more real." 

Michael Learned attends day 2 of the Chiller Theater Expo at Sheraton Parsippany Hotel on April 25, 2015 | Photo: Getty Images

Michael Learned attends day 2 of the Chiller Theater Expo at Sheraton Parsippany Hotel on April 25, 2015 | Photo: Getty Images

Most did not know that the chemistry followed both parties off the set, but they decided not to pursue it because they did not want to have to face each other every day on set should it end terribly. 

She once confessed to Closer Weekly that motherhood is the greatest joy of her life.

Around the time the show started, Learned was in the middle of a divorce from actor Peter Donat — they were married between 1956 and 1972. The divorce affair with Donat disturbed Learned so much; she resorted to drinking heavily. 

Michael Learned at the premiere of "Inclusion Criteria" at Charlie Chaplin Theatre on April 7, 2018 | Photo: Getty Images

Michael Learned at the premiere of "Inclusion Criteria" at Charlie Chaplin Theatre on April 7, 2018 | Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes Waite joined her, but when he realized they were on a destructive path, he went sober and urged her to do the same. She denied it at first, but eventually, she took his advice and went on a sober streak that lasted decades.

It was one of the ways her role on the show changed her life. Before landing the role of Olivia, she was already a veteran actress in the theater industry, but that fame skyrocketed after her appearance on "The Waltons."

Michael Learned at the "Blithe Spirit" opening night performance at The Ahmanson Theatre on December 14, 2014 | Photo: Getty Images

Michael Learned at the "Blithe Spirit" opening night performance at The Ahmanson Theatre on December 14, 2014 | Photo: Getty Images

HER SON'S QUESTION

The Waltons had a lasting impression on everyone who watched it, and by everyone, that includes Learned's three boys, Lucas, Chris, and Caleb. 

They got to watch their mother be a mom to seven other kids and excel at it, so when one day, one of her boys was not feeling particularly pleased with her, he angrily asked why she could not be more like Olivia Walton. 

Michael Learned at The Cable Show on April 30, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images

Michael Learned at The Cable Show on April 30, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images

It was not easy for Learned to juggle being a caring mother of three sons and spending almost all day on set filming. The demands were telling, but despite all of it, she once confessed to Closer Weekly that motherhood is the greatest joy of her life.

It's why she enjoys celebrating mother's day with her boys. "They would make me breakfast and bring it to me on a tray. Sometimes it was totally inedible, but they'd be so happy that I'd try to eat it," she told Closer Weekly. 

Not much is known about her children and the lives they now lead. Two of them chose lives outside the glare of the spotlight, but one, Lucas, decided to follow in her footsteps to become an actor. 

Within the movie industry, he is known for his acting on "Damien: Omen II," and outside the industry, he is known for presiding over the advertising success of companies like eHarmony, LegalZoom, Hotwire, Ancestry, and TrueCar. 

Lucas is a member of the Director's Guild of America and has directed many campaigns for his clients over the years. He currently works as the CEO of Tiny Rebellion, an agency he founded.

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