News of comedian Garry Shandling’s death flooded the media on March 24th, with tributes aplenty touting the star of "It’s Garry Shandling’s Show" and "The Larry Sanders Show." But two other prominent individuals also passed away last week: writer and producer Earl Hamner, Jr., who created family drama "The Waltons," and actor and SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard.
Four summers ago I had the opportunity to meet Hamner at a Warner Brother event at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. "The Waltons" was often criticized for being too sentimental," he told me. "But we tackled many serious issues. And we did it through the eyes, and the hearts, of a family that loved and cared about each other. We may not have been hip or sexy, but there was a great hunger for this real family interaction. People wanted that sense of security."
About eight months earlier I had attended an event honoring the 40th anniversary of the 1971 made-for-television movie "The Homecoming," which "The Waltons" was based on, and met most of the cast.
"There was no sex or violence on "The Waltons," remembered Michael Learned, who played matriarch Olivia Walton. "No sensationalism. We were the family you wished you had, but often didn’t. We offered that connection."
Initially, "The Waltons," which was patterned on Hamner’s childhood experiences growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia during the Depression, was not expected to survive opposite ABC’s "The Mod Squad" and NBC’s "The Flip Wilson Show." But it ultimately rose to the No. 2 rated show in all of primetime by its sophomore season (1973-73), behind "All in the Family". It won a Peabody Award for season one, 13 Emmy Awards in total and countless other accolades. Today, "The Waltons" is referred to as the "granddaddy of family dramas," having established the model for series like "Little House on the Prairie," "Eight is Enough," "7th Heaven" and "Brothers & Sisters."
"We were the kind of show kids and teens at the time would not admit they watched," said Judy Norton, who played oldest daughter, Mary Ellen. "We were not the cool show. But there is something to be said for nine seasons on the air, the follow-up movies and the ongoing interest from fans all over the world."
Prior to "The Waltons," Hamner was the author of eight episodes of the original "Twilight Zone" (many episodes of which were inspired by the folk tales he heard as a child). He also honed his skills as a writer in episodic television in series like "Nanny and the Professor" and "Gentle Ben;" and he created dramas "Boone," "Apple’s Way" and "Falcon Crest," which was initially developed as a family-themed drama set in the Napa Valley wine industry called "The Vintage Years." CBS asked Hamner to make the show more like "Dallas," which dominated the primetime rankings at the time (and ultimately became the show’s lead-in for "Falcon Crest"). He stayed with the series for five seasons.
But "The Waltons" will remain the heart of Hamner’s legacy, evidenced by the legions of the show’s fans who still gather online today. "We are indeed fortunate that his body of work will remain his legacy to us," said Karen Kearney, author of email newsletter "The Waltons Digest," upon news of his passing.
"The White Shadow," starring Ken Howard, did not have the luxury of a nine season run like "The Waltons." Originating from Howard’s own experiences as a high school basketball player, it launched on CBS in the fall of 1978 (in place of sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati" and "People," the short-lived TV version of People magazine), and barely resonated via the Nielsen ratings in its two-and-one-half season run. Yet "The White Shadow" is remembered by many, including myself, as one of the true unsung heroes in the history of dramatic TV storytelling.
While not the first series set in a fictional high school ("Mr. Novak" and "Room 222" had earlier runs), "The White Shadow" tackled then-controversial subjects like homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution and gang violence. It was one of the first series to kill off a regular character (Eric Kilpatrick as student Curtis Jackson was gunned down during a liquor-store robbery). And it paved the way for future dramas like "Hill Street Blues," "My So-Called Life" and "St. Elsewhere."
Certainly there was much more to Howard’s career than "The White Shadow." He was a two-time Emmy Award winning actor (including Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for HBO’s "Grey Gardens" in 2009). He won a Tony Award for his role in "Child’s Play" in 1970. And his resume was peppered with recurring roles in several primetime series (including "Dynasty," "Crossing Jordan" and "30 Rock"), and film appearances including "Clear and Present Danger," "The Net," "Rambo," "In Her Shoes" and "Michael Clayton."
In 2009, Howard was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, and in 2012, helped foster its merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union.
"Ken Howard was a calming, trusting presence, an actor who understood that our collective art is also a collective business," noted Tom Hanks in a statement, "He promoted a common sense attitude that also looked for the as-yet unimagined ideas that would strengthen not just the guild but also our gravitas as actors. Along with his physical stature, he was a giant of a man."
While the careers of Earl Hamner, Jr. and Ken Howard certainly followed very different paths, television today would not be what it is without their contributions. And a heartfelt "good night" to them both.