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‘The Waltons’ Star Michael Learned on Her Latest Project and What She’s Learned Throughout Her Long Career (EXCLUSIVE)

See what to expect from her new film — and how her 'Waltons' costars helped her through tough times

While Michael Learned is best known as the kindly matriarch on the classic ’70s series The Waltons, the Emmy-winning actress is so much more than just a retro TV mom. Learned is forever grateful to have played Olivia Walton for seven seasons, but at 85, she’s had many other projects since then, and was introduced to a new audience with her 2022 role in the Netflix true crime series Monster.

We sat down with Michael Learned to talk about her upcoming film, her lengthy career and the pivotal events shaped her into who she is today.

Our Crossroads: The new film starring Michael Learned

Learned’s latest project is Our Crossroads, an upcoming film based on a real-life story about Barbara Fraley and her husband Bob, who in 1969 petitioned the courts for guardianship of six orphans.

The film does not yet have a release date, but Learned was excited to be part of it, saying, “I was in awe of Barbara. Not only was she battling multiple sclerosis, but she was determined give these kids a good life and not let her physical challenges get in the way or limit her.”

Singer and actor Pat Boone plays Learned’s onscreen husband. Despite their many decades working in the same industry and knowing the same people, their paths never crossed until now. “I had never met Pat, and I have to confess he is the most charming, genuine and down to earth guy,” says Learned.

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man kissing womans hand
Michael Learned and Pat Boone in their new film, Our Crossroads (2024)Michael Learned

The difficult road to stardom

Before gaining recognition as one of TV’s most beloved moms, Learned was a struggling theater actress with no money and three other mouths to feed. “I was broke, I had three kids, I was going through a divorce [with her ex-husband, actor Peter Donat], and I was a total wreck,” Learned shares. “I was beside myself, because I had been with my husband half of my life and then I was a single mom with nothing, trying to figure out how to support my children.”

Then one day, unbeknownst to Learned, a casting director for CBS saw her in the play Private Lives and knew she was perfect to play Olivia Walton. “I was staying at The Hollywood Land Motel for $12 a night, and I remember jumping out to answer the phone. It was my agent telling me, ‘Congratulations, you are now the mother of America.’ That was when I knew I had to get my act together,” she recalls.     

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How The Waltons changed everything for Michael Learned

Learned couldn’t believe she was going to be starring in a TV series. Not only did the job bring her a steady income, it also helped her get through her divorce mentally, emotionally and financially.

“I had to show up every day, which was sometimes hard,” Learned says. “I felt like I was being pulled in two directions. My work needed me, and my kids needed me.” Learned’s costars helped her get through these rough patches. “If I was having a bad day, Eric Scott [Ben Walton, the third Walton son] would go out of his way to make me laugh. He was so sweet, as was Richard Thomas [John-Boy Walton Jr., the oldest Walton son] and then there was Ralph Waite [John Walton Sr., her onscreen husband] who I had great chemistry with.”

mother and kids together; michael learned
The cast of The WaltonsCourtesy of “Lessons I Learned on The Mountain”

The Waltons ran for an impressive nine seasons from 1972 to 1981, airing 221 episodes and six reunion movies. “You couldn’t help but feel excited,” Learned says. “Ralph and I used to joke, ‘This series is never going to fly, and we’re lucky if we get a few episodes of out this.’ Boy, were we wrong!”  

Saying goodbye to The Waltons

In 1979, after the seventh season, Learned left the show that made her a star. Although she appeared on a handful of other episodes before the program was canceled in 1981, the actress said the grueling production schedule became too much for her.

woman sitting and people standing around; michael learned
Reunion of The Waltons castHarlan Boll

In 1981, Learned went on to star opposite Robert Reed (best known for playing the dad on The Brady Bunch) who she described as kind and gentle, in the short-lived series Nurse.

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While Learned described the working conditions on the show as being terrible, she did earn yet another Emmy Award for her role as Nurse Mary Benjamin, which she felt was a groundbreaking achievement, as few women were headlining shows at the time.

Michael Learned on her famous costars

Learned was excited when she was cast as Trish Carlin on the short-lived series Living Dolls, which was a spin-off of the popular ’80s sitcom Who’s The Boss? “Believe it or not, comedy is my strong suit,” she says, “I’m really funny and I wish that show would have gone the distance because it was fun to do.”

Learned has fond memories of her costars, the then-unknown Leah Remini and Halle Berry, both of whom she adored. She also had recurring roles on The Young and the Restless, General Hospital and Scrubs and a five-episode arc on Monster, in which she played Catherine, the grandmother of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. “What I loved about Catherine was that she was a well-rounded character who loved her grandson, yet was unaware he was a serial killer,” she says.

woman with emmy awards
Michael Learned with her Emmy AwardsCourtesy of Michael Learned Archives

An open book

Decades into her career, Learned says she has nothing to hide. I have learned that secrets do not get you anywhere,” she says. “Believe it or not, I am a deeply flawed human being. While I have made plenty of mistakes, they have made me who I am today. I’ve had an interesting life, and I am grateful for everything that happened.”

woman sitting smiling
Michael LearnedHarlan Boll

Learned’s personal life has has had its fair share of drama. In 1988, she tied the knot with her fourth husband, John Doherty. “It’s been 33 years and I am proud to say I finally got it right,” she laughs, “My last marriage was abusive, and this time I said to myself, ‘I’m not walking into a room and seeing a guy with his head in his hands when everyone is happy.'”

husband and wife holding hands; michael learned
Michael Learned and her husband, Jon DohertyCourtesy of Michael Learned Archives

“He is so kind,” Learned says of her husband. “Sure, we argue about all kinds of things, because in some ways we are different and in others we are on the same page, but I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”

Outside of the spotlight, Learned says she is a regular housewife who likes to grocery shop, do projects and spend time with her family. She remains as warm and approachable as ever, and we can’t wait to watch her new movie.

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