Theater, Waltons Mountain still call Michael Learned

Published June 16, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

As the daughter of a military man, Michael Learned _ who was born in Washington, D.C. _ grew up in England, and for 3{ years attended a vocational school there. And that school, she said, laid the foundation for a career in the theater.

Like many aspiring actors, once she considered herself ready to fly, she headed for New York, where she got her first roles in off-Broadway productions. Then she moved to Canada, working in television in Toronto and at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

When she returned to the United States, it was not to New York, but to San Francisco, where she spent five years with the American Conservatory Theater. Those, she said, were "the glory years."

But her biggest years, in terms of acting fame, began in 1972 when she began her association with The Waltons, playing the role of Olivia, the mother in the long-running series. In addition to wide-ranging recognition, the role brought her three Emmys.

After six years with the series, Learned wanted to shed her Walton obligations, and talked of leaving the show. She did leave in January 1979, but she came back in the fall and stayed with it another season.

The show went off the air in 1982, but there have been reunions, and another of sorts is shaping up. So Learned will be Olivia once again in a Waltons movie of the week that is to be made this summer.

Learned did two other television series after The Waltons. She starred in the CBS show Nurse, which lasted only one season (1981-82) despite the fact that she won another Emmy for that role. And she was in Hothouse, which had an even briefer run in 1988. "They buried it," she said, "but I had a great time doing it."

During this period she also made her film debut in Touched By Love and made a variety of television appearances. She also resumed her theater work, playing most recently on Broadway in The Sisters Rosensweig in 1993.

This week she is off for Williamstown, Mass., where she appears in the premiere of an Arthur Miller play, Ride Down Mt. Morgan. This comes on the heels of a nine-month cross-country tour in Three Tall Women. And just before that she appeared in Dancing at Lughnasa at the Globe Theater in San Diego. "I'm getting my theater life back again," she said. "It has always been my first love."

As for other roles she would like to have a crack at, she said, "I'm too old for those. I'm most grateful for whatever comes along. To be in an Edward Albee play for eight months and now in a new Arthur Miller play is a great privilege."

That appearance will not be her first in a Miller play. She was in a PBS production of All My Sons in 1988.

Learned, 57, recently squeezed some time out of her busy acting schedule to go to Santa Fe, N.M., to be on hand when her second grandchild was born. She has three grown sons by her first marriage. Her current husband is a lawyer. "I'm an Easterner," she said, "but he needs to work in Los Angeles, so that's where we live. And I've told him I'll stay home for awhile after making th new Waltons movie."

She said members of the Waltons cast remain very close. "We're very fond of each other," she said. "That was part of the chemistry of the show. I don't know how you could work together on a series for eight of nine years if you didn't get along."

Learned's masculine name is a source of occasional trouble. At one of the Emmy ceremonies, she was introduced as "Michelle."

"I don't know why I wound up as Michael," she said. "I think my parents must have had a couple of martinis before they named me. But my father always told me if I'd been a boy they were going to name me Caleb.

"I always felt self-conscious about my name, mostly because adults wouldn't believe me when I told them my name. But it never seemed to make any difference to other kids."