“Waltons” star Michael Learned admits she and onscreen husband Ralph Waite ‘were in love’

In the popular CBS sitcom “The Waltons,” they played the loyal married couple Olivia and John Walton, one of the most well-known television couples ever.

Even though they were constantly surrounded by kids and every episode emphasized the value of family and love, their real lives were far different from the idyllic ones they portrayed on the show.

Between 1972 to 1981, “The Waltons” aired for nine seasons and was a beloved family favorite.

The cast of the hit television series "The Waltons" poses for a promotional photo on January 1, 1972. | Photo: Getty Images

In the imaginary mountain village of Walton’s Mountain, Olivia Walton and John Walton—played by actors Michael Learned and Ralph Waite—lived with their seven children, their grandparents, and other family members while battling to survive the Great Depression.

When they were chosen for the show, Learned and Waite shared many characteristics. This was their first significant break in acting, and they both hailed from large families.

Despite being a Washington, D.C. native, Learned spent a large portion of her early years living on a farm in Connecticut with her five younger sisters.

She left England for Austria when she was 11 and attended the Arts Educational School, Tring, which is now the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Tring, Hertfordshire, where she fell in love with acting.

However, it wasn’t until she was 33 that she was cast in the role for which she would become best known. Waite, who played her on-screen husband and was 11 years older than her, was also the eldest child of a large family who had grown up in White Plains, New York.

After finishing high school, Waite joined the Marines, then went to college, where he temporarily worked as a social worker, before graduating from Yale University with a master’s degree and becoming an ordained Presbyterian preacher. He made the decision to convert to acting, and in his mid-forties, after appearing in several films and TV shows, he was cast in the enduring role of John Walton.

The two hit it off straight away and their onscreen chemistry made them an immediate hit with fans. Learned secured three  Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Olivia Walton.

However, while portraying the ideal family on television Learned had a turbulent personal life. When she was just 17 years old, she got married for the first time to Canadian-American actor Peter Donat, with whom she had three boys. It took her two more marriages and a divorce (16 years later) before she found a partner she could be truly happy with.

Michael Learned and Ralph Waite while filming the episode "The Parting" on November 16, 1978. | Photo: Getty Images

After a three-year marriage to actor-screenwriter Glenn Chadwick, Learned wed William Parker in 1979. In a 2017 interview, Learned acknowledged that a long-term partner—whom she would not name—had abused her at home. She claimed that after being choked by her partner, she made the decision that she could no longer turn “the other cheek” and that she needed to leave.

This wasn’t her only struggle in life as after her divorce from her first husband she became an alcoholic, something that Waite helped her to get through.

“I was drinking heavily when the show started, and Ralph saved my life. Really,” she said.

ma and pa walton real connection

She described how they frequently went to a restaurant for lunch during their breaks, arriving back on set inebriated. She stopped drinking after Waite “straightened himself out,” telling her that she was drinking too much, so she went to her ex-husband Donat’s remote cottage on the California coast to become sober.

Waite also experienced his fair share of pain, getting divorced three times and claiming that the effects were so severe that he was never able to consider getting married again. With their most recent unions—Learned to attorney John Doherty, who is 12 years her junior, and Waite to Kerry Shear, who is 20 years his junior—the two did find bliss.

But in 2019, 5 years after Waite’s death, Learned finally admitted what fans had suspected all along; that she and Waite were deeply in love.

Michael Learned and Ralph Waite attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 | Photo: Getty Images

Although the actors had a strong love for one another, they never expressed it because of their commitment to the show as professionals.

Learned clarified that they chose not to pursue the relationship because it may “get messy” and harm the popular series. Instead, Waite died in 2014 at the age of 85, and Learned insisted that they valued their long-lasting friendship.

“We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken that extra step, and we didn’t,” said Learned.

“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. His wife is a very good friend. But what Ralph and I had was something that came across on screen.”

Onscreen, it is easy to see how well they get along, but to keep their feelings to themselves demonstrates their devotion to a program that has entertained millions of viewers over the years and is still broadcast on TV today.

Please share with all The Waltons‘ fans you know.

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