Interviews: It’s 1970s Again With Walton Sisters, Pamela Sue Martin

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CHICAGO – This year marked the 40th anniversary of the premiere of “The Waltons,” one of the most beloved TV series of the 1970s. Two actresses who portrayed Mary Ellen and Erin Walton, Mary McDonough and Judy Norton, appeared at the “Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show,” along with Pamela Sue Martin of TV’s “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries’ (1977).

HollywoodChicago.com was at the event to interview all three ‘70s icons, with photographer Joe Arce producing his usual stellar portraiture.

StarJudy Norton, Mary Ellen Walton on “The Waltons”

Judy Norton was memorable as Mary Ellen Walton, adding a little passion to the often saccharine image of the TV family. She also gained a bit of notoriety after the series ended by posing for Playboy in the mid-1980s. She is still working in the business, as an actress, singer, writer and director. She recently appeared on the “Today” show, reuniting with the cast of the Walton family on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of “The Homecoming,” the Christmas-themed pilot of the long-running series.


Judy Norton at the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show, Chicago, March 26th, 2011
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

HollywoodChicago.com: Since you literally grew up on television during your teenage years, did you ever have any trouble distinguishing Judy Norton from Mary Ellen Walton?

Judy Norton: No. There were aspects of the character that were similar to me, I was a tomboy, and I really enjoyed that part of the character. But I really was aware of what the differences were, I really wasn’t that much of a rebel. I didn’t have as much nerve, so I really enjoyed being out there and more rebellious through Mary Ellen. It also gave me an opportunity to let go of some internal frustration through the character, which made it easier to be who I was.

HollywoodChicago.com: What type of image change were you anticipating when you decided to pose for Playboy in the mid 1980s?

Norton: I got a lot of advice from agents, publicists and various people after the series ended. I was paying these people to advise me, so I guessed I should take their advice. That was my first big mistake, to think that people who represented me knew me better than I knew myself. There are a lot of things to think through regarding the career choices you make, and it came down to the type of roles I wanted to do. I liked Mary Ellen, and I thought she was tough and passionate, and I never thought of myself as a sex symbol. Had I really thought it through, it would have come down to ‘are those the roles I really want to play?’ That wasn’t really who I was, it was just different.

HollywoodChicago.com: Did you have any say in the direction of your character Mary Ellen in the series and were you ultimately satisfied with the developments in her fictional life?

Norton: For the most part, yes. After I got married and had a baby on the show, they killed off my husband at Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the character shifted, and we lost everything that Mary Ellen was about. I actually went to the producers, and creator Earl Hamner, and asked them what happened to the feisty woman who didn’t want to conform to the roles of women of that time. They did take that to heart, so they crafted a story that she not only would be a nurse, but also go to medical school. It gave me a whole new, stronger story line about a woman in the 1940s struggling to be accepted and make it in medical school.

HollywoodChicago.com: But wasn’t there a mystery involving your husband in the show where he actually ended up being alive?

Norton: Some point along the line, someone in the show thought it would be a great idea to find out my husband wasn’t dead, and personally that was my least favorite story line of that particular episode. I thought it was stupid and I felt stupid doing it. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: In the pilot show of the series, the Christmas movie ‘The Homecoming,’ there was a more overt reference to the Depression that was softened in the regular series. Do you look at that pilot separately than the rest of the series?

Norton: Yes, in a lot of ways. First, there were different cast members, it was an opportunity to work with Patricia Neal and Edgar Bergen. It was a brilliant cast. It was also shot differently, it had a darker and grittier tone. Obviously that couldn’t translate to the regular series. It was definitely different.

HollywoodChicago.com: Do the cast members of the show now ever talk about the impact it made in the portrayal of ‘The Waltons’ as a cultural touchstone? Is there anyone who is embarrassed now that he or she was part of the show?

Norton: When we do various functions where we’re all being interviewed its almost universal that we get asked questions like that. During the course of the show, we really didn’t understand the impact, and certainly no one had any way of projecting how far into the future it would go, and you don’t know that 40 years later it will become part of pop culture. As actors, we sometimes were frustrated by doing the characters for that long of period, but I’ve never heard any of the cast say they weren’t proud of doing the show. We’ve always been touched by the stories that people tell us on how the show helped them to get through in their lives.

HollywoodChicago.com: Who made the most money from the show, CBS, Lorimar or Warners? And was the cast taken care of with residuals?

Norton: I have no idea who made the most money, I’m not a businessperson. We don’t get residuals. We came up through a time period with the union where productions were only obligated to pay residuals through a short period of time. It was the same for all TV actors from the 1970s.

HollywoodChicago.com: What can you tell us about Richard Thomas [John Boy] that the rest of the world doesn’t know?

Norton: He’s a good dancer. [laughs] I love Richard. Since most people so closely associate him with John Boy, they would be surprised to know that he is less like that character than other characters he’s played. He’s much more sophisticated, very well read and very well traveled. And he’s very funny. Nobody would be disappointed to meet him and see how different and similar he is to the character.

The Walton Sisters Together Again: Judy Norton and Mary McDonough
The Walton Sisters Together Again: Judy Norton (Mary Ellen) and Mary McDonough (Erin)
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

StarMary McDonough, Erin Walton on “The Waltons”

In March of this year, Mary McDonough released a new book, “Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton,” a memoir regarding the show and her post-show life, which included complications from plastic surgery procedures. She is now an advocate for positive body image, and works both as a lecturer in that realm and as an actress on such shows as “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” She also participated in the “Today” show Waltons reunion.


Mary McDonough at the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show, Chicago, March 26th, 2011
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

HollywoodChicago.com: You have a new book, ‘Lessons from the Mountain,’ in which you view your life during and after your time on The Waltons. What reflection on your life’s inventory told you it was time to write the book?

Mary McDonough: I think because I’m a coach, and do public speaking and workshops, that people kept asking me if I had a book. So people kept encouraging me. And as I say in the book, I was doing ‘The New Adventures of Old Christine’ and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the others on the show kept telling me to write the stories down. It was a combination of enough time had gone by and I’d come out the other side, and I wanted to share it with people to help them.

HollywoodChicago.com: What did you feel about Erin Walton that you thought you never could achieve for Mary McDonough?

McDonough: I think Mary McDonough has gone beyond Erin Walton, because Erin was so caught up in being the middle daughter and the pretty one. And my lesson as Mary was to grow beyond that, and move on.

HollywoodChicago.com: In the pre-publication notes for the book, it speaks of your life after The Waltons as dealing with insecurities that were amplified by your time as a quote-unquote ‘celebrity.’ What normal activities were difficult for you because of this?

McDonough: Going to school, back and forth from the set. I talk about that a lot in the book. Being typecast as Erin Walton, which led me to make some very bad decisions regarding my health and body. I think all of that, plus wanting to work so bad and have validation as an adult.

HollywoodChicago.com: How did you reconcile the portrayal of a 1930s and ‘40s girl with the relative freedoms of going up as a teenager in the 1970s?


Judy Norton, Mary McDonough & Kami Colter of ‘The Waltons’
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

McDonough: What was weird about growing up in both places, is that the Vietnam War was going on when the show started, so that was an whole education in itself. And since we were also living in the Depression, we got to learn to milk cows, ride mules and gather eggs from a chicken coop. It was a really diverse way to grow up, and I felt like I didn’t have to reconcile it other than to appreciate how lucky I was to do all this fun stuff.

HollywoodChicago.com: There was no secret dope smoking, or anything like that?

McDonough: [Laughs] My book is not salacious, unlike so many others out right now. I throw myself under the bus and not anybody else. It’s all about my lessons from the mountain and not Judy’s or Richard’s. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: What was the Waltons episode where you thought you stretched yourself as an actress the most?

McDonough: I love the episode called ‘The Burn Out.’ It was about pyrotechnics, working at night, the family house burning down and the kids splitting up. I had to go live with the preacher and his wife, played by John Ritter and Mariclaire Costello, and I became very ‘churchy,’ I pulled my hair back and wore sack gray clothes. It is my favorite.

HollywoodChicago.com: What can you tell us about Ralph Waite that the rest of the world doesn’t know?

McDonough: That he has a wicked sense of humor and he tells naughty, naughty jokes. [laughs] He’s so perfect, and he’s just hilarious.

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