Earl Hamner Jr., creator of “The Waltons” and a prolific TV writer who helped shaped some of TV’s best-known and loved series, has died. He was 92. His son, Earl Hamner, announced late Thursday via Facebook:
“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.”
A genteel Southerner who thrived in the hard world of Hollywood, Hamner created two iconic CBS series, “The Waltons” and “Falcon Crest,” but also wrote eight episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” including a couple of classics — “Stopover in a Quiet Town” and “The Hunt.” He was also a prolific writer for a pair of now largely forgotten series that were huge successes at the time: “Gentle Ben” and “Nanny and the Professor.”
But “The Waltons” was a cultural giant — one of those series that seemed to capture how a broad spectrum of Americans wanted to see themselves. It was, of course, an idealized and romanticized vision of America, but also one that in the ’70s was rapidly disappearing. It was set in a mountain town in Depression-era Virginia, and based on the exploits of a large family, not unlike Hamner’s own. He was born on July 10, 1923, in Schuyler, Virginia, the oldest of eight children.
In an interview in 2011 for “Emmy TV Legends” he explained the genesis of the famed “Waltons” close, where each family member said good night to each other: “We would say good night to each other all over the house, and sometimes we’d get carried away saying so many good nights that my father, who had to get up early in the morning, would say, ‘All right, that’s enough.’ ”
Richard Thomas — who played John-Boy Walton — “always wondered how you people could say good night and be heard, but then I saw the house [where Hamner grew up] and it’s such a little cracker box, that now I understand.”
“The Waltons” was roughly autobiographical. John-Boy was an aspiring novelist, and eventually became one. The family’s horizons — and the show’s dramatic structure — were otherwise limited to a small slice of Americana, where the chief concerns were those of the average viewers: school, marriage, death and making enough money to survive.
Lasting almost a decade (1972-81), the series ended with John-Boy returning from New York, an established author looking to re-establish his roots. It began as a special in December 1971 entitled “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” based on a Hamner novella, then launched as a full series the following September. The earlier episodes quickly established the homespun themes that would endure for the run: the family adopted a deaf girl, or the family took in some carnival performers, or the kids protested when their father, John Walton Sr. — played by Ralph Waite, who died in 2014 — wanted to slaughter a calf.
Michael Learned, who played the matriarch, Olivia, would earn a total of six Emmy nominations for the role, winning three.
“Falcon Crest” — also about an extended family, although this one set in California’s Napa Valley — arrived almost immediately after “The Waltons” ended, and also had a decadelong run. Like “Waltons,” “Crest” became another one of the dominant prime-time soaps that kept CBS the nation’s most-viewed network, others including “Dallas” and its spinoff, “Knots Landing.” It was also to become Jane Wyman’s last TV role. The first wife of Ronald Reagan, she had largely disappeared from television since the ’50s, when she hosted “Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theater.”
Hamner’s son said in the Facebook announcement of his father’s death that he “was diagnosed with cancer in June of 2014, and had surgery performed in July on his 91st birthday. Unfortunately, the cancer had metastasized.”
Hamner added, “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!’ ”