Earl Hamner Jr., the homespun novelist from the backwoods of Virginia who drew upon his upbringing to create the beloved CBS family drama The Waltons, died Thursday. He was 92.
Hamner, who also created a spicier show about another family for CBS — the long-running primetime soap opera Falcon Crest — and wrote eight episodes of Rod Serling’s fabled anthology series The Twilight Zone, died of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a post written by one of his children on his Facebook page.
“I am very sorry to be the bearer of sad news. My father, Earl Hamner, passed away today at 12:20 PM Pacific time. Dad died peacefully in his sleep at Cedar Sinai Hospital. He was surrounded by family, and we were playing his favorite music, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Collection. Dad took his last breath half way through Ricky Mountain High. I am sure many of you know Dad was ill, but his amazing tenacity and fight masked how seriously ill he has been over the last year and a half,” the post reads.
Hamner authored several novels, including 1961’s Spencer’s Mountain, which was inspired by his childhood spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains and adapted for the 1963 Warner Bros. film that starred Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and James MacArthur.
Very much the Southern gentleman, Hamner also was selected by E.B. White to write the script for the 1973 animated film Charlotte’s Web, and he did the teleplay for the Swiss children’s classic Heidi, the 1968 NBC movie that famously came on and denied exasperated sports fans the final moments of an exciting pro football game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets.
“It was the first time I felt in competition with a football team, and I won,” Hamner said with a chuckle during a 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television.
Hamner was born on July 10, 1923, in Schuyler, Va., the oldest of eight children (five boys, three girls, all red-headed.)
His father, Earl Sr., worked as a machinist at the DuPont factory in Waynesboro, Va., and lived in a boarding house before heading back to the family in Schuyler on weekends. He walked six miles home at the end of each week, and one such trek, on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1933, became the inspiration for Hamner’s beautiful 1970 novella, The Homecoming.
Lorimar bought the rights to the book and made it into a 1971 Christmas special that starred Richard Thomas and Patricia Neal (modeled after Hamner and his mother) and effectively served as the pilot for The Waltons.
The series, which took place in the fictional rural Virginia town of Walton’s Mountain and spanned the years from the Great Depression to World War II, ran for nine seasons from September 1972 through June 1981. It starred Ralph Waite and Michael Learned as the parents of seven kids, with John-Boy (Thomas), the oldest. (“He made a better John-Boy than I did of being me,” Hamner often said.)
In Hamner’s house, the kids said good night to one another from their respective rooms, just like on the show. And each of The Waltons episodes opened and closed with narration by Hamner as John, now older and looking back.
“I became the narrator in an odd way,” he recalled in a 2000 interview with Filmfax magazine. “When we were producing The Homecoming, we auditioned just about every professional narrator in town. Finally, Fielder Cook, the director, said, ‘We need somebody who sounds as homespun as Earl.’ He thrust a microphone in front of my face and told me to read the copy. It was a particularly moving segment about my feelings for my family, and I felt very deeply about what I was reading. When I looked over at Fielder I could see that he was moved and that I had the job!”
The Waltons, which made it to No. 2 in the Nielsen ratings in its second season, received 39 Emmy nominations and won 13 trophies, including one for best drama series in 1973, and spawned several telefilms after CBS canceled it.
Three months after The Waltons left the air, Hamner’s Falcon Crest, another show from Lorimar, premiered. Starring Jane Wyman as the corrupt owner of a California winery, it aired right after Dallas, another soap about a wealthy family, and gave CBS a potent 1-2 punch in the ratings.
“Falcon Crest may seem a startling change of pace from The Waltons, but in many ways the Gioberti family of Falcon Crest were the Waltons of today,” he said in the Filmfax interview. “The matriarch of the family [Wyman] was proud of her family, and, while she often was underhanded in doing so, she did everything she could to nurture the rituals, history and customs of her family. She was proud of her land, valued the continuity of it and, I suspect, would have gone to any lengths to protect it.”
Falcon Crest also lasted nine seasons, from 1981 through May 1990, but Hamner quit after season five, unhappy with the direction of the series.
Hamner showed an inclination to write at an early age: At 6, his poem about a red wagon full of puppies was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Thomas Wolfe became his idol, and he modeled his life after the novelist from the small town of Asheville, N.C.
Upon graduation from Schuyler High School, he won a scholarship to the University of Richmond but in 1943 was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he learned how to dismantle land mines.
In the late 1940s while at the University of Cincinnati, Hamner wrote a script for the CBS Radio program Dr. Christian, which billed itself as “the only show on radio where the audience writes the scripts,” and won some cash. In New York to accept his prize, he met Serling, a student from Antioch College who also was a winner, and they received their money from Jean Hersholt, the star of the show.
(After graduation, Hamner landed a full-time job at Cincinnati radio station WLW, and when he left, Serling replaced him. Years later, Serling would introduce Hamner as “the man who gave me my first job.”)
While working as a staff writer for NBC Radio in New York, Hamner published his first novel, Fifty Roads to Town, in 1953. A year later, he wrote “Hit and Run,” an episode of the NBC legal drama Justice that centered on a driver (E.G. Marshall) who is haunted after he strikes a newsboy on a bicycle and leaves the scene.
Hamner, who later did some writing for the Today show, moved to California in 1961 and got a huge career boost when producer Buck Houghton liked two suggested story lines that Hamner had sent to Serling for CBS’ Twilight Zone. Hamner wound up writing eight episodes of the series (he reprised the theme from “Hit and Run” for the 1964 episode “You Drive”); only Serling, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont did more.
After Spencer’s Mountain was released, Warner Bros. hired him to write the screenplay for the spring break film Palm Springs Weekend (1963), starring Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens.
Hamner also wrote episodes of the CBS series Gentle Ben, starring Dennis Weaver, Clint Howard and a bear, and ABC’s fantasy sitcom Nanny and the Professor, with Juliet Mills and Richard Long. He also created the short-lived Apple’s Way for CBS and Boone for NBC and did the screenplay adaptation for the 1974 film Where the Lilies Bloom.
Hamner’s 1965 novel You Can’t Get There From Here, a day in the life of a teenager looking for his father in New York City, was optioned by composer Richard Rodgers for a musical, but the Broadway legend died in 1979, and the project never went forward.
Survivors include his wife, Jane, who was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar when the couple were married in October 1954, and their children Scott and Caroline.