An Afternoon’s Chat
The first thing Michael Learned wants to explain is her name…yes, she was named Michael by her parents: it is her real name and her full name. She has no middle name. It is not a made-up name for acting. Why did her parents give her a boy’s name? She was the eldest of six girls – but at that time they hadn’t yet given up on having a boy. They just liked unusual names.
She was unknown when she was cast in The Waltons and in the show’s opening credits, her name was to appear under her image. The producers decided that if her name appeared as Michael Learned, people would think it was a man’s name and they had made a mistake. It was decided that she would be called Miss Michael Learned. But after a few seasons of the very popular Waltons, people knew who Michael Learned was, and eventually the Miss was dropped.
Michael Learned is happy to share this story and many more in conversation in her one-woman show now on stage at Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia. Having just finished a run in Driving Miss Daisy there, she is now available to sit on stage, with a big screen featuring old photos beside her. It’s a very comfortable chat, as she leafs through a photo album and talks about her life and her experiences.
She grew up on a gentleman’s farm in Connecticut, but then her family moved to Austria and she went to boarding school in England, where theatre captured her interests. At 17, she married Canadian actor Peter Donat and moved to Stratford, Ontario where he was on the Festival stage. She had three baby boys and kept house there – she says it was good preparation for all the housework she did as Olivia Walton. Eventually the family moved to San Francisco where both she and her husband were in theatre, but the marriage was failing.
Just when she was very discouraged, she was given the life changing role of Ma Walton, in the TV series. She was amazed to win her first Emmy award after the first season, but of course, the announcer called her Michelle Learned and she had to correct him. A clip of that award presentation appears on the big screen.
The Waltons TV series was a spin-off of the movie The Homecoming. Overwhelmingly popular, it appeared on CBS for nine seasons, from 1972 to 1981. The story told about a family with seven kids in Virginia during the Great Depression. Miss Michael went on to win three Best Actress Emmys for her role in The Waltons, and another for a short lived series Nurse.
During her on-stage chat, she talks about her co-stars on The Waltons, her theatre acting, her three sons and extended family. She is comfortable sharing photos of her boys, Chris, Caleb and Lucas. In fact, one son, Chris, his wife Becky and their daughter were in the audience for the opening show. Another son, Lucas is married to Traci Wald, daughter of Helen Reddy.
Miss Michael says she is “nervous as a cat” about being alone on stage, talking about herself. But her comfort in relating fascinating stories belies that. She is perfectly charming and candid throughout the chat. And after a generous question and answer session, she says goodbye.
Goodnight John-Boy, Goodnight Mary Ellen, Goodnight Jason, Goodnight Elizabeth, Goodnight Jim-Bob, Goodnight Ben, Goodnight Erin and Goodnight Ma. Thanks for a fascinating afternoon.
Miss Michael continues at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until July 29. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or 519-882-1221 for tickets or visit www.thevpp.ca
Photo: Michael Learned (inset top left – as Olivia Walton)
Miss Michael ~ In Conversation with Michael Learned
Starring Michael Learned
Directed by David Hogan
Multi Media/Research by Michael Vanhevel
Victoria Playhouse Petrolia
July 27 to 29, 2016
Reviewed by Mary Alderson