'The Waltons': Olivia and John's Love Story Wasn't Just On-Screen

For a decade, John (Ralph Waite) and Olivia (Michael Learned) Walton enamored fans on the TV show The Waltons as Pa and Ma of the Walton clan on television. Their chemistry revealed a near-perfect marriage with parenting skills that so many families would love to see. No doubt their acting skills had a lot to do with the attraction, but was there more to the actors’ relationship in real life than fans ever knew?

Life before ‘The Waltons’

Following his graduation from Bucknell University, Waite tried out a few different occupations from social work to becoming a Presbyterian minister. At the age of 30, he decided to study acting. He made his theatre debut in New York, where he quickly earned his way to Broadway in the early 1960s, according to IMDb. After moving to the West Coast, he started landing bit parts in big-name movies such as Cool Hand Luke and Five Easy Pieces.

Waite was reluctant to audition for the part of John Walton, Sr. as he didn’t want to get tied down to a television series. With a nudge from his agent, who told him he felt the show wouldn’t sell anyway, Waite auditioned and got the role for which he’d be part of for nine seasons, according to Wide Open Country.

Learned was born in Washington D.C. and lived on a farm in Connecticut until her family moved to Austria when she was 11. She attended boarding school in England where she realized she wanted to become an actor, according to IMDb. She met and married her first husband, actor Peter Donat, at the age of 17. She appeared in Shakespeare Festivals in Canada and the U.S., while raising her family. At the time she was cast as Olivia for the new TV series, The Waltons, she was mostly unknown by U.S. audiences. 

The years during ‘The Waltons’

Based on the book, “Spencer’s Mountain” by Earl Hamner, the television series followed the story of a father trying to earn a living and feed his family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression of the early ’30s through to World War II in the ’40s. John, Sr. and Olivia have seven living children, John-Boy (Richard Thomas), Jason (Jon Walmsley), Mary Ellen (Judy Norton Taylor), Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough), Benjamin (Eric Scott), James Robert “Jim Bob” (David W. Harper), and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler), while remembering two others, who died at birth. John’s parents, Zebulon “Zeb” (Will Geer) and Esther Walton (Ellen Corby), also remain living in the family house John grew up in on Walton’s Mountain.

The TV show quickly became a classic show, capturing an audience of young and old alike. It remains one of the best television shows of all time, with reruns still being aired, today. From the year the show started through the ’70s, The Waltons earned numerous nominations and awards including Emmys, Golden Globes, and People’s Choice Awards. Learned earned the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 1973, 1974, and 1976. The show earned the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Television Program in 1975 and 1976.

Waite and Learned’s real-life relationship

It wasn’t until recently that Learned admitted to being in love with Waite from early on. More than 35 years following the finale of the show, Learned opened up about their relationship, according to the DailyMail. She said they “were in love” off-screen, but rather than turning it into what could become a “messy” romance, they became very deep lifelong friends.

In her 2019 interview, five years following Waite’s death, Learned said, “‘We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken it that extra step, and we didn’t. We never did. We thought about it, but we didn’t. And I think that’s why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will, and I miss him terribly.”

Learned went through a divorce in 1972. Waite had been divorced since 1966. “There was a period where Ralph and I were both single and we did love each other so we made a date and it was going to happen and we got together and we looked at each other and went, ‘Nah, this will never work,’” Learned said. “Thankfully, we had the good sense to not take it the next step, because I think it would have gotten messy. It might have gotten messy, but our love was very deep and true.”

Both Waite and Learned had alcohol addiction problems. Learned credits Waite for helping her stop drinking. Each went on to be married twice more. Learned remains married to her third husband, John Doherty, whom she married in 1988. At the time of his passing, Waite was married to his third wife, Linda West, whom he married in 1982.

Learned and Waite remained good friends until the time of Waite’s death in 2014 at the age of 85. Each had gone on to other acting gigs, Learned in guest roles on several television shows. Waite went on to play other father figures, the last of which was as Jackson Gibbs, the father of NCIS’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon). The show honored him with an episode surrounding the senior Gibbs’s death in 2014.

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