That era, however, wouldn’t be the ’60s or the ’70s. The setting of “The Waltons,” from which “Good night, John-Boy” derived fame, belongs to “The Greatest Generation.” The television series was set in the Depression, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, just below the “taller ridges … rimmed with a fading autumn silver,” as Earl Hamner Jr. wrote in his semi-autobiographical novel “Spencer’s Mountain,” from which “The Waltons” was drawn.
On “The Waltons,” John-Boy was played by actor Richard Thomas, better known these days not as the bookish country boy he once personified but as the spy-hunting bureaucrat Agent Gaad on another hit series, “The Americans.”
In real life, John-Boy was indeed Hamner, creator and narrator of the show as well as author of “Spencer’s Mountain.” Now he is gone. He was 92, a veteran of World War II, one of America’s best-loved writers and, as the narrator of “The Waltons,” a much-loved voice.
His son broke the news Thursday on Facebook:
I am very sorry to be the bearer of sad news. My father, Earl Hamner, passed away today at 12:20 PM Pacific time. Dad died peacefully in his sleep at Cedar Sinai Hospital. He was surrounded by family, and we were playing his favorite music, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Collection. Dad took his last breath half way through Ricky Mountain High. … We had the good fortune to keep him in our lives a bit longer despite the odds against him. He never got enough of this great gift of life with which we have all been so deeply blessed — and he hung on as tightly as anyone could with insatiable passion and wonder. My heart is broken as I say, “Goodnight, Dad!”
All of the Waltons were based on real people — Hamner’s family, his grandfather and grandmother, his father and mother, and his brothers and sisters, of whom there were seven in the show but eight in real life. They lived crowded together in what Hamner described as a “little cracker box” in Schuyler, Va., where his father labored in a soapstone quarry until it closed and then in a DuPont factory in Waynesboro, 30 miles away, where he stayed all week, returning for the weekends.
While it may have seemed irrelevant to the social upheaval of the era in which it was broadcast, it was, in fact, an antidote to it.
As the Museum of Broadcasting expressed it: The family portrayal was “in sharp contrast to the problem-ridden urban families of the ‘socially relevant’ sitcoms such as All in the Family, Maude or Sanford and Son which vied with it for top billing in the Nielsen ratings. Set in the fictitious rural community of Walton’s Mountain, Virginia, during the 1930s, the episodic narrative focused upon a large and dignified, ‘salt-of-the-earth’ rural white family consisting of grandparents, parents and seven children.”
“Audiences in all entertainment media have been brutalized by crudities, vulgarity, violence, indifference and ineptitude,” Hamner wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1972. With the Waltons “we are attempting to make an honest, positive statement on the affirmation of man.”
It was a sanitized version of the Great Depression, though. The production notes, cited in the Museum of Broadcasting by Pamela Wilson, said “That the Waltons are poor should be obvious, but there should be no hint of squalor or debased living conditions usually associated with poverty.”
“The story,” Hamner said in an oral history for the Archive of American Television, “reminded people a lot of their own experiences or the way they wished their own experiences had been.”
As he tells it, it was indeed his own experience, down to the “good night” ritual that concluded each show. With the night descending on Walton’s Mountain, the camera would show the lights going out room by room. And as they did, the day’s inevitable crisis resolved, the family would banter for a moment about it and finally:
“That was something that we actually did when I was growing up,” Hamner said. “Sometimes we’d get carried away saying so many good nights that my father, who had to get up in the morning, would say, alright, that’s enough. And Richard Thomas, after his first trip to Virginia, he said, ‘you know, I always wondered how you people could say good night and be heard. But then I saw the house and it was such a little crackerbox that now I understand.'”
The order of “good nights” varied from episode to episode, of which, by the way, there were over 200, a remarkable achievement particularly in view of the skepticism with which CBS executives viewed the staying power of the series when it debuted in 1971, following a successful airing of “The Homecoming,” a 1 hour and 40 minute made-for-TV pre-cursor to The Waltons based on a Hamner book of the same name. “It got around the industry,” Hamner said, “that this was a show about poor people living in the depression years in the backwoods of Virginia. And everybody said, well, ‘that won’t last.'”
The plots, each one of them described on Wikipedia, were fairly predictable, most of the time:
“John-Boy is anxious to prove himself on a turkey hunt with his father and two friends, but finds he can’t shoot a turkey, which he equates with premeditated murder. He has no trouble killing a bear when it attacks his father.”
“John-Boy borrows an antique typewriter from the Baldwin sisters so he can submit a proper manuscript to a magazine. Mary Ellen inadvertently sells the typewriter to a traveling junk dealer. Fortunately, Sheriff Bridges is able to help her track it down.”
But occasionally, the ugly world outside Walton’s Mountain would intrude:
“A troubled teenager from Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, whose father was murdered by a gangster runs away from the Civilian Conservation Corps to Walton’s Mountain. The Waltons take him in and teach him that he can trust some people and he doesn’t have to fight (literally) for everything he gets.”
“A Jewish Nazi-refugee family moves to Walton’s Mountain from Germany. Expecting to find similar anti-semitism in America, the bitter, distrustful father, Professor Mann, chooses to protect his family by hiding their faith, and cancels plans for his son’s impending bar mitzvah. The paranoid couple rebuff the Waltons’ every attempt at visitation. John Boy discovers the family secret, and helps the boy find a rabbi while the others open their home for the ceremony. Grandpa convinces the father not to deny his faith, and to honor his son by attending.”
“The Waltons” ran until 1981, receiving five Emmy awards in its first season and more than a dozen over the years.
Hamner, the AP reported, died in Los Angeles and had recently been battling pneumonia, said Ray Castro Jr., a friend of Hamner’s who produced a documentary, “Earl Hamner Storyteller,” about the writer. In addition to “The Waltons,” Hamner created the long-running TV drama “Falcon Crest” and collaborated with Rod Serling on “The Twilight Zone.”
Hamner is survived by his wife, Jane; son, Scott; and a daughter, Caroline.