For nine seasons on CBS, The Waltons was a part of a weekly tradition for television viewers. It was a staple of Thursday nights for so long that many were a little lost when it finally went off the air in 1981.
Based on the Spencer’s Mountain book by Earl Hamner Jr. and a 1963 Henry Fonda movie of the same name, The Waltons revolves around a large family living in rural Virginia during the Depression and World War II. The family, living on Walton’s Mountain, is comprised of John and Olivia Walton (Ralph Waite and Michael Learned), their seven children, and John’s parents, Zebulon “Zeb” and Esther Walton (Will Geer and Ellen Corby). The story is seen primarily through the eyes of John “John Boy” Walton (Richard Thomas), an aspiring writer and the eldest son. The other children are played by Jon Walmsley, Mary Beth McDonough, Eric Scott, Judy Norton-Taylor, David W. Harper, and Kami Cotler.
The mountain setting is also home to several other townspeople like the moonshine-producing spinsters, the Baldwin sisters (Mary Jackson and Helen Kleeb); general store owners Ike and Cora Beth Godsey (Joe Conley and Ronnie Claire Edwards); hard-working African American Verdie Foster (Lynn Hamilton); and undermotivated chicken thief Yancy Tucker (Robert Donner).
As the series wore on, the family grew through weddings and births. There were also a few notable cast changes. Thomas left The Waltons as John Boy went off to college and then joined the war effort. Thomas guested twice before being replaced by Robert Wightman in latter seasons. Corby suffered a stroke midway through season five and was absent for much of the 1976-77 season. The stroke was written into the storyline and she returned for the 1978 season but eventually left again in 1979. Geer passed away in 1978 and his character’s death was written into the series. Learned left the series in 1979 and made occasional appearances afterward. It was explained that her character had developed tuberculosis and entered a sanitarium.
The last season, taking place in 1945, finds several men of the Walton family fighting the war. Ben is captured by the Japanese army, Jason may have killed another man, and John Boy falls in love with a French woman. At home, Mary Ellen becomes determined to become a doctor despite opposition, and much more. The war finally comes to an end and the children return home.
The final episode, titled “The Revel,” aired on June 4, 1981. In the episode, John-Boy goes to New York to pursue his writing career but arrives to find that his manuscript has been rejected. His publisher’s secretary gives him enough money to return home and advises him to start a new book. He returned home dejected. Meanwhile, the Baldwin sisters plan a lavish ball and send out invitations to their many old friends. Most are returned because the people have all died or moved away. The Waltons end up saving the day when they gather everyone they can find to attend the celebration. In the closing epilogue, John Boy recounts that the Baldwins’ zest for life would inspire him to write another book and return to New York.
The cast reunited for a total of six made-for-TV movies. The last one, centered around Easter, aired in 1997. There’s been no recent talk of any more reunions.
The Waltons: The Complete Ninth Season contains all 22 episodes of the final season on three DVDs, released for the first time. The Waltons: The Complete Seasons 1-9 has also just been released, for those who want to collect all 221 episodes of this long running family-friendly series.