For 24 million Americans, it was what creator Earl Hamner Jr. called ”a beacon in the night.” But the beacon went out on Aug. 20, 1981, when CBS aired the last episode of The Waltons. After nine seasons, 11 Emmys, and countless lessons in life, viewers finally said goodbye to one of the warmest TV families ever to face adversity together.
Back in September 1972, the idea of a one-hour drama detailing the Depression-era struggles of a close-knit family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia left both reviewers and network execs yawning. Taking a chance on counterprogramming, CBS slipped The Waltons into a prime-time slot on Thursday nights, up against such huge urban hits as The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad. Two years later, both Flip and Mod Squad were off the air, and The Waltons held the No. 8 spot in the ratings.
To virtually everyone’s surprise, The Waltons quickly built a following among both adults (especially those concerned about sex and violence on TV) and a new generation of children and young teens. Using a formula as simple and sugarcoated as the Walton folk themselves — keep the focus on people who are proud, wholesome, and responsible — the show helped TV rediscover a deep chord in the American public: family values.
Eventually, The Waltons began showing its age. The younger actors started outgrowing their roles. After suffering a stroke in November 1976, Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton) could no longer work as a regular. Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) died of respiratory failure in April 1978. Michael Learned (Ma Walton), tired of the show’s grueling schedule, left the cast in 1979, returning only for special appearances. The most devastating blow came when Richard Thomas, beloved as John-boy, decided to leave the Waltons nest in 1977 to do theater. After audiences last heard the family’s ritual lights-out call of ”Good night, John-boy” — a phrase that passed into the pop-culture idiom — the ratings began to decline. The show hung on with its loyal audience, but as The Waltons moved into World War II, the plots grew thinner until cancellation became inevitable.
By proving there was a TV audience for down-to-earth family programming, however, The Waltons paved the way for such fare as Little House on the Prairie and The Cosby Show — and in that sense, its beacon kept on shining.