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The Waltons

Earl Hamner

The Waltons was a successful and fondly remembered American television drama series which was screened on CBS between 1972 and 1981. Produced by Lorimar Productions, it ran to over 200 hour-long episodes and several feature-length specials. The show followed the life of a large family living in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia from the middle of the Great Depression through till the immediate post-war years of the 1940s. Subsequently, several follow-up telemovies extended the timeline through to the late 1960s.

The creator of The Waltons was called Earl Hamner. In fact, the TV show The Waltons was actually the last entry in a number of screen and literary works which were based, to a greater or lesser extent, on Hamner own experiences growing up in the 1930s. At that time, Hamner lived together with his family – including his seven brothers and sisters: Cliff, Marion, Audrey, Paul, Bill, Jim and Nancy – in a white, clapboard house in the small town of Schuyler, Nelson County, Virginia.

Though it was the middle of the Depression, the Hamner family didn’t have it quite as bad as one might think. The countryside provided much of what city folks had to pay for – the mountains were a rich, and free source of game, fish and wild fruit. The ample space available provided easy opportunity to keep chickens, pigs and a cow or two. And any excess produce could always be bartered with neighbors for other goods and services that were needed.

Aspiring author Hamner had kept his own private journal during his childhood, documenting the day-to-day happenings within his family and all the assorted interactions and gossip involving the neighbors living nearby.

Spencer’s Mountain

Written for the screen by Delmer Daves, based on the novel by Earl Hamner Jr.
Directed by Delmer Daves
Music by Max Steiner
Released May 16, 1963 (US)

Warner Bros. Pictures Presents, A Delmer Daves Production. Starring: Henry Fonda1, Maureen O'Hara2, James MacArthur3, Donald Crisp4, Wally Cox5. Introducing: Mimsy Farmer6. With: Virginia Gregg7, Lillian Bronson8, Whit Bissell9, Hayden Rorke10, Kathy Bennett11, Dub Taylor12, Hope Summers13, Ken Mayer14.

1 Clay Spencer.
2 Olivia Spencer.
3 Clay-Boy Spencer.
4 Grandpa Spencer.
5 Preacher Clyde Goodson.
6 Claris Coleman.
7 Miss Parker.
8 Grandma Spencer.
9 Dr. Amos Campbell.
10 Colonel Coleman.
11 Minnie-Cora Cook.
12 Percy Cook.
13 Mother Ida.
14 Mr. John.

Technicolor®. Filmed in Panavision®. Charles Lawton A.S.C. (Director of Photography), Carl Anderson (Art Director), David Wages (Film Editor), M. A. Merrick (Sound), Ralph S. Hurst (Set Decorator), Bert Steinberger (Dialogue Supervisor), Robert Totten (Second Unit Director), H. F. Koenekamp A.S.C. (Second Unit Director of Photography), Phil Rawlins (Second Unit Assistant Director), Our thanks to the National Park Service Grand Teton National Park Wyoming for their help and cooperation, Marjorie Best (Costume Designer), Jean Burt Reilly C.H.S. (Supervising Hair Stylist), Gordon Bau S.M.A. (Makeup Supervisor), Murray Cutter (Orchestrations), Gil Kissel (Assistant Director), RCA Sound Recording, A Warner Bros. – First National Picture.

© Copyright MCMLXIII [1963] Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.

William Breen (Mountain Boy), Veronica Cartwright (Becky Spencer), Michele Daves (Donnie Spencer), Martin Eric (Odell Harper), Bronwyn FitzSimons (Dean's Secretary), Med Flory (Spencer Brother), Victor French (Spencer Brother), Michael Greene (Spencer Brother), Mike Henry (Spencer Brother), Robert 'Buzz' Henry (Ambulance Driver), Kym Karath (Pattie-Cake Spencer), Rusty Lane (Dean Beck), Rory Mallinson (Cop), Larry D. Mann (Spencer Brother), Barbara McNair (Graduation Singer), James O'Hara (Spencer Brother), Ray Savage (Spencer Brother), Guy Wilkerson (Slim Temple), Gary Young (Matt Spencer), Michael Young (Mark Spencer), Ricky Young (Luke Spencer), Rocky Young (John Spencer), Susan Young (Shirley Spencer).15

15 All actors given in this paragraph are uncredited on the movie's titles; the information has been taken from the Internet Movie Database and has not been verified.

As the patriarch of a large and growing family living in the Grand Teton mountains of Wyoming, Clay Spencer is fiercely independent, yet dedicated to his family. While he resists the influence of religion, he struggles to allow his son to attend college, and to build a new home for his family.

In 1961, having only achieved sporadic success in his chosen career as a screen writer, Hamner revisited his early journals with the intention of adapting them into a full novel. The resulting book, Spencer's Mountain, followed a couple of years in the life of 15-year-old Clay-Boy Spencer (a character loosely based on Earl Hamner himself) living in the fictional village of New Dominion, Virginia.

The novel met with good reviews and soon after the film rights were bought up by Warner Brothers. Warner's cast Henry Fonda in the starring role of the family patriarch, Clay Spencer. Co-starring were Maureen O'Hara as Clay's wife, Olivia, and James MacArthur (later to become famous as "Book 'Em" Danno in Hawaii Five-O) as Earl Hamner's fictional counterpart, Clay-Boy. Clay-Boy's love interest, Claris, was to be played by Mimsy Farmer, later to work mainly in European cinema.

In writing the movie's script, some portions of the book were passed over for being too racy for cinema of the time. Earl Hamner has been critical of the movie for "sexing up" his book but, in fact, the opposite is true: a quite explicit sex scene from the book – in which Clay-Boy loses his virginity to his sometime girlfriend Claris – is heavily truncated, and then also a later scene where she claims to have fallen pregnant.

Also cut from the movie was an extended sequence where Clay-Boy has his first experience of shooting game (here a deer, but the idea would later be reworked to involve a wild turkey in the early The Waltons episode, The Hunt). Another deletion involves Clay-Boy visiting two elderly hooch-brewing sisters. Yes, the fondly remembered Baldwin ladies and their "recipe" started here... but sadly at this stage they never made it from the book to the screen (though they are mentioned in the movie). Our first face-to-face meeting with the sisters (who were in fact, inspired by a real-life mother and daughter from Hamner's boyhood) would be postponed until The Homecoming telemovie, below. Luckily one sequence – later to become the one of the best-remembered facets of The Waltons TV series – was left in the script. We hear the family calling out goodnight to each other (in numerous permutations) before finally extinguishing their bedroom lights: a real family ritual from Hamner's childhood.

Authentic shooting in Virginia was considered out of the question due to the distance factor, so the setting of the movie was transferred to the impressive Grand Teton mountains in Wyoming. The location filming was carried out in the small town of Jackson Hole over four weeks during June and early July 1962, with many of the local inhabitants willingly joining in as extras to swell out the crowd scenes. The time period of the movie was also brought forward to modern times (as of 1962), though due to the largely timeless nature of the locations and costumes, this isn't really too obvious to the viewer.

Following this, the cast returned to Hollywood for another four weeks to film the interiors. After the months of post-production, the cast travelled back to Jackson Hole in the May of 1963 for a lavish three-day press premiere. During this time, the Jackson townsfolk held a ceremony, attended by the cast, in which they named one of the nearby mountains Spencer's Mountain, in honor of the movie.

Contemporary reviews of the movie ranged from lukewarm to positive and, to my mind, although it's reasonable enough viewing, it can hardly be called a classic. Henry Fonda himself subsequently made no secret of the fact that he didn't regard the movie as one of the better entries on his CV. In fact he would even later claim that once he had read the eventual script he regretted ever signing his contract.

The main problem with the movie is insufficient "gee-whiz" factor. The audience waits in vain for something big to happen, but it never does. Unfortunately, one of the most significant moments of the story – Clay-Boy's grandfather getting hit and killed by a falling tree – comes over as a bit comical, as we see a dummy of the actor getting squashed in a rather Monty Python-esque manner. Also, though the cast generally turn in competent performances, Maureen O'Hara's Irish accent does seem variable at times. And while mentioning matters of sound, the quality of the sound editing on this movie is very dubious at times, even given the standards of the day.

Spencer's Mountain title
Henry Fonda as Clay Spencer with Maureen O'Hara as Olivia Spencer
James MacArthur as Clay-Boy Spencer
The Spencer clan
Clay baths his babies
Mimsy Farmer as Claris Coleman

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story

Teleplay by Earl Hamner Jr. from his novel entitled The Homecoming
Directed by Fielder Cook
Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith
Broadcast December 19, 1971 (CBS)

Starring: Patricia Neal1, Richard Thomas2, Edgar Bergen3, Ellen Corby4, Dorothy Stickney5, Josephine Hutchinson6, William Windom7 and Cleavon Little as Hawthorne Dooley. Executive Producer: Lee Rich. Producer: Robert Jacks.

1 Olivia Walton.
2 John-Boy Walton.
3 Grandpa Walton.
4 Grandma Walton.
5 Emily Baldwin.
6 Mamie Baldwin.
7 Charlie Sneed.

Earl Rath (Director of Photography), Robert E. Smith (Production Designer), Neil T. Maffeo (Unit Production Manager), Max Stein (Assistant Director), James G. Cane (Set Decorator), Pam Polifroni (Casting), Marjorie Fowler A.C.E. (Film Editor), Gene Fowler Jr. A.C.E. (Film Editor), Harold Lewis (Sound Mixer), Bob Harris Jr. (Costumes), Betsy Cox (Costumes), Bob Sidell (Makeup), Dione Taylor (Hair Stylist), Portions of the Fibber McGee and Molly Program Courtesy of NBC Radio, Edward O. Denault (Production Manager), Morton Stevens (Music Supervision), Exteriors Filmed in Teton National Forest, A CBS Television Network Production, Filmed at CBS Studio Center Studio City California.

© MCMLXXI [1971] Columbia Broadcasting System Inc.

Special Guest Star: Andrew Duggan (John Walton). Co-Starring: David Huddleston (Sheriff Ep Bridges), Woodrow Parfrey (Ike Godsey), Sally Chamberlin (City Lady). Jon Walmsley (Jason), Judy Norton (Mary Ellen), Mary McDonough (Erin), Eric Scott (Ben), David Harper (Jim-Bob), Kami Cotler (Elizabeth), David Livingston (Claudie), Betty Carter (Emmarine), Kent Williams (Shepherd #1), Roderick Bingley (Shepherd #2), Rodney Bingley (Shepherd #3), Miyoshi Williams (Angel), Clarence Landry (Santa Claus), Carrie Hamner (Young girl listening to City Lady)8, Scott Hamner (Young boy listening to City Lady)8.

8 Uncredited on titles. Carrie Hamner is Earl Hamner's daughter; Scott, his son. Scott would later write for The Waltons.

Christmas Eve 1933: the Walton children prepare for Christmas. They expect their father home from work any time, but he fails to appear. Eldest son John-Boy embarks on a mission to find him...

Hamner published a follow-up to Spencer's Mountain, entitled The Homecoming, in 1970. Once again, the novel followed the lives of the Spencer family but, although it was published after Spencer's Mountain, the second book would actually seem to be a prequel to the first. Having said that, none of the ages given for the various kids match up properly across the two books (e.g. Pattie-Cake is three in The Homecoming and eight in Spencer's Mountain; however, Luke is 10 in the former, but... eight in the latter!? Clay-Boy is 15 in both...).

Soon after publication, Spencer's Mountain attracted the eye of Phil Capice, Vice-President of Specials and Movies at CBS who contracted fledgling production company, Lorimar, to produce a TV movie of the book, to be run as a Christmas special.

The rights to the use of the name "Spencer" went with the rights to the earlier book and were still held by Warner Brothers. So, Lorimar found they had to invent a whole new set of names. The family now became Walton. Father Clay became John, and son Clay-Boy became John-Boy. Becky became Mary Ellen, Shirley became Erin, John became Jason, Mark became Jim-Bob, and Pattie-Cake became Elizabeth. Lorimar felt that there were too many kids in the original, so Matt and Luke were conflated into a single character, Ben...

Character name in Spencer's Mountain (book & movie) and The Homecoming (book only)Character name in The Homecoming movie and The Waltons Name of real-life Hamner siblingActor in The Homecoming and The Waltons
Clay-BoyJohn-BoyEarl Richard Thomas
JohnJason1 CliffJon Walmsley
BeckyMary EllenMarion Judy Norton
ShirleyErinAudrey Mary McDonough
MattBen2 PaulEric Scott
LukeBill
MarkJim-BobJim David Harper
Pattie-CakeElizabethNancy Kami Cotler
Donnie3-- -
Franklin Delano3- --
Eleanor3-- -

1 The musical ability was "transplanted" from the Jim-Bob character (representing Jim Hamner) to Jason for the purposes of the TV show.
2 The separate Luke character was to originally have been called Stuart in The Waltons.
3 Baby characters only in Spencer's Mountain (Donnie, book and film; twins Franklin Delano and Eleanor, book only).

The real-life Hamner siblings

The Hamner siblings. Top row (l-r): Nancy, Jim, Bill, Paul.
Bottom row (l-r): Audrey, Marion, Cliff, Earl.

The script of The Homecoming was written to follow the original book quite closely. The main exception was an encounter between Clay-Boy/John-Boy and a trapped deer out on the mountain which was deleted as too complicated to film. The screen version also added some extra suspense with the family fearing that father John has been involved in a possibly fatal bus crash – there is no crash mentioned in the novel.

Filming was set for the fall of 1971. Lorimar copied the idea of relocating the setting from Virginia to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, just as the producers of Spencer's Mountain had done. The town used for the filming of the location exteriors was again Jackson Hole. Back in California, the interiors were shot at the CBS studio on Radford Avenue, Studio City.

Most people viewing the The Homecoming today are looking at the situation in reverse, as it were, and coming to it more familiar with the later The Waltons TV series into which it evolved. For such viewers, all the kids are instantly recognizable: they are all played by the same actors who would go onto the series proper (though Ben, Jason and Erin aren't actually given all that much to do in The Homecoming). Ellen Corby as grandmother Esther Walton is also there, too. But that's really where the similarities stop.

Along with the smaller roles like Ike, the Baldwin ladies and Sheriff Ep Bridges, both (Grandpa) Zebulon Walton and (Pa) John Walton are played by different actors (Edgar Bergen and Andrew Duggan, respectively). But it's Olivia Walton, played by Patricia O'Neal, who is the biggest shock to the system for viewers more familiar with Michael Learned's later version of the same character. O'Neal's much rougher, less gentle "Livy" sounds like she regularly gets through a whole bottle of neat moonshine – and 60 smokes – a day!

Adherents of The Waltons series will also notice that the kids are a little bit naughtier in this "pilot" movie. They talk about breasts (Mary Ellen wonders why hers aren't growing) and call each other "piss ants" – it's difficult to imagine either of those being allowed in one of the resulting series' scripts! Although in common with the series, the seventies haircuts (particularly David Harper's as Jim-Bob) do tend to date the visual look of the piece.

The Homecoming was shown on CBS on Christmas Eve 1971 and achieved an impressed 39% audience share. CBS ordered a full series from Lorimar, particularly happy with the viewing figures and the effective set of child actors who had been selected.

However, CBS were more uneasy about some of the adult roles. Worried about Patricia Neal's health (she had earlier suffered a severe stroke), they suggested the role of the mother be both recast and softened, despite the fact that Neal had won a Golden Globe for her performance; the part ultimately went to Michael Learned. Similarly, Edgar Bergen was really not strong enough to stand the rigors of shooting a weekly show and he was replaced as the grandfather by Will Geer.

According to legend, Henry Fonda (despite being far too old for the role) was approached to play the father, John Walton, but responded, "I'm too old to play second fiddle to a 15-year-old kid," and declined, also feeling that the family was the star, not one particular individual. The somewhat younger Ralph Waite was signed on for the part instead.

There was absolutely no way a weekly show could afford the time or money to location in Virginia (or Wyoming come to that), so locations in and around southern California would have to suffice, despite some differences in the native vegetation. Also, other actors who lived in California – and thus close to the studios – would have to be found to replace those playing the smaller parts (such as Ike and the Baldwin sisters), most of whom lived further afield.

The Homecoming title
Patricia Neal as Olivia Walton
Andrew Duggan as John Walton
Ellen Corby as Grandma Walton
Edgar Bergen as Grandpa Walton
The Walton kids with Grandpa
Little Elizabeth Walton
The Baldwin sisters
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Spencer's Mountain (movie)

 

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (pilot TV movie)