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Ronda Rich: ‘The Waltons’ was a hit for the ages
Ronda Rich
Ronda Rich

When I was growing up, especially as a teenager, people would often say, “It must be hard being a preacher’s kid.”

It could be difficult because there were high expectations. Being a preacher’s child, though, was nothing difficult compared to being the wife of a television writer. My husband has almost ruined television for me. He walks into the room when I’m viewing a show — and by the way, I grew up loving television — and more often than not, he rolls his eyes and says, “You’re not watching that, are you?”

Then, he begins a critique because he believes in the power of good television. This has gotten so troublesome that I am developing low self-esteem when it comes to television show selection. To avoid this, I usually put the TV on a high-brow selection like a PBS documentary then I switch the channel to the lower brow shows I adore. If I hear Tink’s footsteps, I quickly hit the previous button so that when he comes into the room, a pleasing show is on.

There is an exception, though. A show that unites us in joy and entertainment. It is the 1970s’ series, “The Waltons,” about a Depression-Era family in the Blue Ridge Mountains. That show holds up as well today as it did when it debuted in 1971. The INSP channel runs two episodes daily so I record them.

John Tinker, truly a child of television, having grown up in the industry, is infatuated with its simple yet complex storytelling. His admiration is so strong that he watches two or three episodes nightly.

“This is the best show.” He practically gushes, and Tink is not a gusher. He is mesmerized by the quality. “Look at how they take their time in this scene. The director lets their emotions play out. This show would never get made today.”

It almost didn’t get made in 1971. A Waltons television Christmas movie had done reasonably well in the ratings but it was a hard series sale at CBS, which, ironically (because it was Tink’s family), was investing in modern, fresh shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Merv Adelson, partner at Lorimar Productions, and Earl Hamner, creator of the show and the model for John Boy, were in a futile pitch at CBS when chairman, Bill Paley, walked in. Paley ran the television and radio network he built (with genius Frank Stanton) with an iron fist.

He asked what was being pitched and, after being brought up to speed, said decisively, “Do it. We’ve taken a lot out of television. Let’s give something back.”

What they gave is still giving after almost 50 years. It’s drama at its heart-rending best where the characters are well-defined and the ending, even if it isn’t idyllic, is satisfying. The emotions are real and relatable. Though the show and actors were awarded many accolades, Tink says often that Ralph Waite, who played father John Walton, was wildly underrated for his nuanced performances.

In the two degrees of Tinker separation often found in the entertainment world, Tink’s brother, Mark, worked on the show in the beginning of his career.

“I wonder where these outdoor scenes were shot,” Tink said. The Walton house is on a studio lot and is still used today. It was, in fact, on “Gilmore Girls.”

“Somewhere an hour north of Los Angeles,” I replied.

Tink, doubting me, texted Mark who responded quickly with, “An hour from L.A.”

Our pleasures in “The Waltons” are many — Hamner’s melodic narration, extraordinary storytelling and a depiction of rural life filled with rich, inspiring characters like people we know.

One night after a particularly satisfying episode, Tink asked quietly, “Wouldn’t it be something if, 50 years from now, we had written a show that was still this relevant and absorbing?”

Indeed, it would. Thank you, Mr. Earl Hamner. And, you too, Mr. Bill Paley.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.

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