Earl Hamner Jr., creator of “Waltons” TV show, dies at 92
LOS ANGELES – Earl Hamner Jr., the versatile and prolific writer who drew upon his Depression-era upbringing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to create one of television’s most beloved family shows, “The Waltons,” has died. He was 92.
Hamner died in Los Angeles and had recently been battling pneumonia, said Ray Castro Jr., a friend of Hamner’s who produced a documentary, “Earl Hamner Storyteller,” about the writer. Castro said he learned about Hamner’s death from the writer’s daughter, Caroline. A Facebook post by Hamner’s son, Scott, stated his father died surrounded by family at Cedars Sinai Hospital while John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” was playing.
Although best remembered for “The Waltons,” which aired for nine seasons and won more than a dozen Emmys, that show barely scratched the surface of Hamner’s literary accomplishments.
He was a bestselling novelist (“Spencer’s Mountain”), the author of eight episodes of the classic 1960s TV show “The Twilight Zone” and, as a screenwriter, adapted the popular children’s tale “Charlotte’s Web,” into a hit 2006 film. He also created the popular, long-running TV drama “Falcon Crest” and wrote for such other TV shows as “Wagon Train,” ”Gentle Ben” and “The Wild Thornberrys.”
Castro said Hamner remained busy in recent years, and had recently sold a play.
“He was a great Southern gentleman, a great friend, a great father,” Castro said. “He was my mentor. America has truly lost a great icon.”
Hamner published nearly a dozen books and wrote hundreds of TV scripts. He continued to write into his 90s, once noting proudly that the same month he turned 90 he had two stories published in separate collections.
One, “Come Down to the Store, Minerva,” appeared in the horror anthology “Shadow Masters: An Anthology From the Horror Zone” and was inspired by an idea Hamner said he had stashed away decades before when he was writing for “The Twilight Zone.” The other, on fishing, was published in “Gray’s Sporting Journal.”
“The Twilight Zone” episodes Hamner did finish included several of the best the classic TV series aired. Among them were “The Hunt,” in which a recently deceased backwoodsman is saved by his beloved hunting dog from accidentally wandering into Hell. Another, “Ring-a-Ding Girl,” tells the story of a young Hollywood movie star who returns to her hometown hours before her death and tricks family and friends into staying away from the site where her plane will crash.
Hamner and the show’s creator, Rod Serling, had been friends since their college days, and when Serling launched the show in 1959 he invited Hamner to submit scripts. Hamner said he drew inspiration for most of them from folk tales he had heard as a child.
“Looking back,” he once said, “I realize that if I made any unique contribution to the series, it was to introduce the American folklore element into it.”
That element was something he would draw on repeatedly over the next 50 years, first in books like “The Homecoming” and “Fifty Roads To Town” and later in television’s “The Walton’s.”
Like John Boy (played by Richard Thomas), the show’s character he modeled on himself, Hamner was born in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, on July 10, 1923. Also like John Boy, he was the eldest of eight children and named after his father.
It was there that Earl Henry Hamner Jr. grew up in such modest circumstances that his family owned few books other than the Bible and had no telephone. It wasn’t until a high school field trip to the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939, Hamner once said, that he actually learned how to use a phone. Until that trip, he said, he had never been more than 40 miles from home.
He had decided to become a writer at age 6, however, after getting a poem published on the children’s page of a Richmond, Va., newspaper.
After graduating from Schuyler High School at the top of his class, Hamner attended the University of Richmond on a scholarship until being drafted into the Army during World War II.
He returned to Richmond in 2013 just a few days before his 90th birthday, to accept a resolution from the state Legislature declaring him a “Virginia treasure.”
It was in the military, he said, that a fellow soldier named Paul Nusnick exposed him to serious writing, introducing him to the works of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others. He began to write “Spencer’s Mountain” while in France during the last days of the war.
“The battle front was a few miles away and the sounds of gunfire were incessant. I was scared and young and homesick, and as I wrote in my journal I began to remember a promise my father made to my mother on the day they were married. He promised that one day he would build her a house of her own on the top of a mountain.”
He wouldn’t finish the book for another 15 years.
After leaving the Army, he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a degree in broadcasting while working at a local radio station. When he quit to work full-time on his first novel, “Fifty Roads to Town,” his friend Serling replaced him at the station. The two had met during a college script-writing competition.
After “Fifty Roads To Town” was published in 1953, Hamner moved to New York, where he finally finished “Spencer’s Mountain.”
It became a bestseller in 1961 and was made into a popular movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara two years later. Soon after, Hamner and his family moved to Los Angeles.
“Spencer’s Mountain” not only made his reputation as a writer but gave him the blueprint for the proud, independent family he first put on television’s Walton’s Mountain in 1972.
“The Waltons” aired for more than 200 episodes, with Hamner providing brief voiceover narration in each one, telling his audience about his family’s years in the Blue Ridge Mountains and how it had shaped him.
After the show ended in 1981, the family lived on for another 16 years in several TV movies that periodically reunited most of the original cast. They included “A Walton Wedding,” ”A Walton Easter” and “A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion.” The last one aired in 1997.
Hamner, whose own family included two children, is survived by his wife, Jane; son, Scott; and daughter, Caroline.
AP Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.