Family & Companions
Intelligent, sometimes with a stern aura, yet attractive, warm and inviting, Michael Learned was a stage actress virtually unknown to TV viewers when she was cast as Olivia Walton, mother of John-Boy and the others, in the long-running CBS series "The Waltons" (1972-81). Assuming the role that Patricia Neal had originated in a TV-movie special, Learned was so unknown that she was originally billed as "Miss Michael Learned" lest the audience be confused as to her gender and about which part she was playing. A mother of three by the time she was 24, Learned had honed her craft primarily at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where she performed leading roles in such classics as "Under Milk Wood," "Tartuffe" and "Private Lives." Recently separated from her first husband actor Peter Donat when she was cast in "The Waltons," she remained with the series until 1980 (a year before it ended its run), when her character was sent away with tuberculosis. During her tenure on the series, Learned earned three Best Actress Emmy Awards (in 1973, 1974 and 1976) for her turn as the stalwart matriarch. The actress made several attempts to recapture her TV success with the medically themed "Nurse" (CBS, 1981-82), which earned her a fourth Emmy, and as a doctor working in a psychiatric clinic in the short-lived "Hothouse" (ABC, 1988). In 1989, she tried sitcoms as den mother for models on ABC's "Living Dolls," a spin-off from "Who's the Boss?," which also starred Halle Berry.
Learned also worked in TV longforms, beginning with Couldn't Happen to a Nicer Guy" (ABC, 1974). Other roles include as one of several Floridians trying to survive a "Hurricane" (ABC, 1974) and tennis instructor to "Little Mo" (NBC, 1978). Learned also appeared in two well-received adaptations of stage plays: a Showtime adaptation of William Inge's "Picnic" (1986) and a PBS adaptation of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (1987). Subsequent roles have included the plantation wife of the owner of Kunta Kinte in "Roots: The Gift" (ABC, 1988), the mother of Suzanne Somers and wife of her alcoholic father in "Keeping Secrets" (ABC, 1991), and the mother of the victim in "Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story" (NBC, 1991). Learned has also reprised her most famous role as Olivia Walton in several reunion films on both NBC (1982) and CBS (1993, 1995 and 1997).
Learned has made relatively few big screen appearances. In "Touched By Love" (1980), she played a doctor overseeing a cerebral palsy victim who corresponds with Elvis Presley. She also appeared as the governor in Sidney Lumet's "Power" (1986), about the media manipulation of government.
Throughout two decades of TV stardom, Learned has remained true to her stage roots. She replaced Jane Alexander as the successful banker eldest sibling in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig" on Broadway. Among her other recent stage roles were in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" and an acclaimed Los Angeles production of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Three Tall Women." In the latter, she essayed the role of B, the middle-aged woman.
Cast (Feature Film)
Began career in show business as an apprentice at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut; met future husband Peter Donat
Moved with Donat to San Francisco
Moved to L.A.
Starred as Olivia Walton on TV series "The Waltons" (CBS), won three Emmy Awards
Made TV-movie debut, "It Couldn't Happen to a Nicer Guy" (ABC)
Returned to series TV in the short-lived ABC medical drama "Hothouse"
Starred in ABC sitcom "Living Dolls"
Played Suzanne Somers mother in "Keeping Secrets"; Helen Hunt's mother'in-law in miniseries "Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story"
Co-starred in the Broadway revival of "The Best Man"
Appeared in the McCarter Theater production of Edward Albee's "All Over"