I have often wondered what makes an enduring television show. One of my all-time favorite shows was “The Waltons.” I was saddened recently to hear of the passing of Ralph Waite who played “John Walton.”
Growing up, that show reflected most closely the South of my parents and grandparents. I related to John and Olivia, John-Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Ben, Erin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth, Esther and Zeb as if they were part of my own family. Earl Hamner Jr. created this masterpiece of Americana based on his life growing up during the Depression and World War II.
I remember mourning the passing of Will Geer (Grandpa Zeb Walton) as if I had lost my own grandfather. I struggled along with Ellen Corby (Grandma Esther Walton) as she performed through her real-life stroke.
I know that it was a drama and the participants were actors but the characters seemed real to me and made me feel that, the first chance I got, I should move to Walton’s Mountain.
Ralph played the character in a way it reflected many of the men of my family. I could not help but take a moment and remember his portrayal fondly when I heard of his passing. Of course, this was not his only role, just the one that endeared him most to me. I had most recently seen him working on “NCIS” and “Bones.”
Among his many roles were appearances in the mini-series “Roots,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Five Easy Pieces.”
I always enjoyed the various characters who gave his hit show “The Waltons” a bit of the out-of-the-ordinary —such as the Baldwin Sisters, who brewed up the Recipe, not realizing it was illegal; or Corabeth Walton Godsey, the always-starched well-educated cousin who tried to bring a bit of class and culture to the mountain at Godsey’s General Store. Of course, John was known to imbibe on occasion, as were some of my mountain kin.
I had the pleasure of working with Ronnie Claire Edwards, who portrayed Corabeth, while working on “In the Heat of The Night” in an episode titled “Perversion of Justice” and directed by Harry Harris, who also directed “The Waltons.”
For me, getting to spend a few days visiting with her took me back to all those nights waiting to hear that mountain-style theme music emanating from the television speaker.
Like a good Mark Twain story where you just want to pull off your shoes and jump the next raft down the Mississippi, I wanted to pull off my shoes and walk down the old dirt road with all the Walton kids.
I know that Ralph as John will always be watching over those memories for all of us who grew up watching the show that gave us a hope for a loving caring place where people worked together to overcome adversity and injustice.
From what I have learned about Ralph in his later life, this may be the greatest epitaph to his body of work. He made us feel at home wanting to rest our feet under his table knowing we were always welcome. Thanks Ralph!