One of the biggest TV shows of the ‘70s was The Waltons, a family drama set in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II.
For seven-and-a-half seasons, actress Michael Learned starred as matriarch Olivia Walton, the model of an ideal parent. So when it was announced that she would be leaving the series midway through Season 8, fans (and producers) were crushed. It’s a decision that the now 81-year-old still regrets.
What happened to Olivia Walton?
The character’s final appearance on the show was in the Season 8 episode "The Waiting," which aired on Nov. 22, 1979.
Initially, the mother of seven moves to Washington D.C. to be with her eldest son John-Boy, who's injured while reporting on the war in Europe. But later in the series, it’s revealed that Olivia is being treated for tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Arizona.
Michael went on to co-star in four of the six reunion movies — confirming that Olivia does survive her illness — but the Emmy winner was MIA for all of Season 9. What made her quit the drama 18 months shy of the finale? Exhaustion.
"On a television thing it's so minute, the moments are so minute. It's stop and start, stop and start," Michael explained in an interview shortly after her exit. "In a scene where there's any real emotion, it's very hard to dredge that up and then be stopped and then wait for half an hour and then dredge it up again."
During a 2017 chat with Fox News, she added, "I just couldn’t do it anymore… I felt a lot of the times I was sitting around for 14 hours saying, 'More coffee, John?' The fact is I was bored. And I thought I had enough money, which wasn’t true."
Following her departure, the cast filmed just 36 more episodes. "There’s been times when I’ve regretted [leaving the series] only in that it probably would have been better to complete the whole show," Michael admitted.
Though she left on her own terms, the actress still found it difficult to say goodbye. "I was crying on and off camera," she recalled to The Washington Post.
"I finally got worried — I checked with the director. I said, 'You know, she's only going to a sanatorium. Maybe what we're playing is Michael Learned leaving The Waltons rather than Olivia.'"
Michael Learned confessed that she had no interest in playing Olivia at first.
The then 33-year-old, who replaced Patricia Neal as Olivia following the 1971 TV movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, begrudgingly auditioned for the role. "I didn’t want to do it. But I was going through a divorce, and I had three kids to support," Michael told Fox News.
"I wasn’t drawn to it at all! I had finished doing 'Private Lives,' which Francis Coppola directed, and I played Cleopatra that same season at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I wasn’t ready to play a 40-year-old farmer’s wife," she shared. "Of course in retrospect, it was a gift from God. It saved my life."