Michael Learned says 'The Waltons' saved her life, calls new film 'Second Acts' a 'gift'

Michael Learned is always up for a challenge.

The actress, best known for playing beloved matriarch Olivia Walton in “The Waltons,” is starring in a new film titled “Second Acts,” which explores how an elderly couple strikes up a love affair over the course of an evening after prejudices impacted their childhoods. And as the movie is already earning praise, Learned is celebrating the 45th anniversary of her hit TV series, which aired from 1971 until 1981.


Michael Learned today. — Bill Dow

Learned spoke to Fox News about her time bringing “The Waltons” to life, what compelled her to star in “Second Acts,” and why she has no plans to stop working.

Fox News: You previously said that getting the role of Olivia Walton saved your life. How so?
Michael Learned: I was going through a divorce. I was drinking too much, and I came down to LA. I was full of fear because I'd been married since I was 17. Suddenly, I'm alone with three teenagers to raise. I don't know where I got the courage to drive down to LA. I thought, "I'm just going to look at the freeway and learn the freeways in case an audition comes up."

And I stayed at a crummy little motel for 12 bucks a night. And my agent called and said, "That part is still open. You go see about it." And I said, "But I don't look at all like Patricia Neal. I'm 14 years younger than she is..." And he said, "Go." And so I went and I didn't read or anything. They just said, "Will you do a test?" And I said, “Sure."

Michael Learned said her audition for "The Waltons" was with Ralph Waite (sitting) and Richard Thomas. — Courtesy of Michael Learned

And I was lucky to test with Ralph Waite and Richard Thomas, who were wonderful. I was scared to death. I was just shaking. And I think I was hungover probably auditioning for the mother of America. So it was a rough time in my life. And getting that show not only helped me financially, but it also got me sober. I knew I couldn't do a television show and take care of my kids and do all of that and then have cocktails at night and go to bed a little plastered. So it pulled me altogether, and it was a gift. I have two families now. I have my own kids, and I have the Walton kids.


Fox News: What’s one memory of Ralph that's been on your mind lately or one that just makes you smile every time?
Learned: Well, Ralph got me sober. I said, "I'll go and be supportive for you." Because he said, "I'm going to AA." And I said, "Oh, that's wonderful. You really need it." He grabbed me by the shoulders, and he said, "I think you should come." And I'm like, "Me?" But he got me sober, and I'm very grateful to him for that. And we were lovers, not physically, but emotionally and spiritually. We adored each other. We were like a married couple without all the baggage that you get when you're in a marriage.

Michael Learned and Ralph Waite. — Getty

Fox News: And what is it about "The Waltons" that continues to captivate viewers today?
Learned: Family, I think. Family. It's touted now as everybody was huggy kissy and perfect and all that. But it wasn't like that. We had a lot of imperfections as a family. And I think that's what people relate to. They don't relate to how perfect you are. They relate to the fact that you're flawed, and you still carry on. And I think that was the message of "The Waltons," that they loved each other, and there were times that Olivia was judgmental and stiff.

There's a scene where it was Sunday and the preacher was coming to visit and there's a big pitcher of iced lemonade just dripping because it's so delicious. And Olivia makes the kids get dressed in their Sunday best, which is wool on this hot, hot day. I mean, that's borderline abusive because she wouldn't let them have any... Finally, John Walton comes home and says, "Give the kids some lemonade, and they're going swimming." And he was right. But I thought she wasn't perfect, which is good.

Fox News: Did you ever feel typecast?
Learned: Yes, yes. But I don't care. I'm just happy to be cast.

Michael Learned in "Gunsmoke," circa 1973. (Courtesy of Michael Learned)


Fox News: As one of America's beloved TV moms, what is one big piece of advice you would give to anyone?
Learned: Listen. That's the hardest thing for me sometimes, to listen and keep my mouth shut and not try to... Even with my kids, I tried to listen to them, what they were trying to tell, and I didn't always succeed. But, you know, listen.

Fox News: What's one lesson that you feel "The Waltons" can still teach us about America and its people?
Learned: That we're good people basically. We're not perfect... I've lived in Europe as a kid. And I think of this country as a country that's in its adolescence, if you will, where we think we know everything and we really don't yet. We haven't been beaten to our knees like countries in Europe have. So we have a lot of lessons to learn as a country, but I think basically we're pretty damn great... I'm proud to be of this country. I really am.

Seated in a living room set from CBS's "The Waltons" television show are the children of the show, photographed in 1975, counterclockwise from bottom left, Jon Walmsley, Judy Norton, Kami Cotler, Richard Thomas, Eric Scott (standing), Mary McDonough and David Harper. (Getty)

Fox News: You could easily sit back with all the success you've achieved. What has kept you going?
Learned: It’s my work. I love acting and I'm doing a play this summer. I'm going away for six weeks to do a comedy in Kansas. love to work. I mean, when I'm home all I do is housework and grocery shopping. It's so boring. So when I go away to work, I feel alive again.


Fox News: Was there any moment in your career where you felt like giving up?
Learned: When I was most successful was when I felt like giving up. It was hard for me. I was raising five kids and it was hard for me sometimes to... You're in great demand when you're hot and you're just being pulled from all directions. So there were times when I thought, "I just can't do this anymore." But now I have a very simple, easy life and it's lovely to work. I love it.

Michael Learned and Richard Thomas each hold their Emmy Awards for Outstanding Continued Performance in a Leading Role, Hollywood, Calif., May 20, 1973. (Photo by Max Miller/Fotos International/Getty Images)

Fox News: What was it about this film, "Second Acts," that made you want to get involved?
Learned: Well, Gerry Pass, who produced it, gave me a call and said, "I have a little short film, would you like to do it?" And I said, "Sure, send me the script." And it's a bubble of a love story. It's just this perfect little 13 minutes between an African-American man and a woman my age, who as children played together and were best friends and loved each other. And then because her father was racist, they were ripped apart, and they reconnect at the ages we are now, and they're finally able to be together. It's a very sweet film.


Fox News: How was it working with John Wesley?
Learned: John, he's a wonderful actor, first of all, and he's a very handsome guy. And he's an actor's actor. He's one of those people you just connect with. We'd never met, we met on the set, and we were off to the races.

Fox News: How important has it been for you to take on a role like this one?
Learned: To take on any role is great at my age. Well, a role like this one, to do a love story of people of our age. It was written by Travis Liden, who is a young man. He's written a script for older people and he really gets it. It's quite amazing actually, that there is life after 60.

There are people who can fall in love at an older age. And I think it's important because we don't really like old people in this country. In Britain, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench... are kind of considered interesting and eccentric and fun. So I think it's terrific that this film is dealing with two older people who are falling in love again, and it can still happen at our age.

Fox News: What do you hope audiences will get from this film?
Learned: Well, people have seen the film, and they're usually kind of teary-eyed afterward. They're moved by it. And whenever you can generate a feeling in people, I think that's what we're here for as performers. They like it. I mean, they're amused by it and then at the end they're very touched. So it's a lovely, lovely little film. If I may say so myself. It really is a gift.

Judy Norton, Michael Learned and Mary McDonough from "The Waltons" in a 2012 file photo. (Photo by Brian To/FilmMagic)


Fox News: What makes you proud to be an American?
Learned: I’m proud because I think we're learning, we're trying, we've made mistakes, we're making mistakes. But in the end, I think we mean well as a country and we are far from perfect. As people, we don't let our governments get away with too much. If we don't like what's happening, we make a noise, and we're allowed to. And that isn't always true in a lot of the world.

"Second Acts" is currently available for streaming on Sofy.tv.