Please welcome guest authors Michael McGreevey, Ray Castro & Tim McAbee. McGreevey—actor, director, producer, writer, and life-long friend of Earl Hamner and his family–has joined Castro and McAbee to produce a documentary about Hamner. Earl Hamner Storyteller explores the life and works of one of America’s best writers. For over seventy years Earl’s writing has entertained and inspired people all over the world. Their mutual respect and admiration for Mr. Hamner’s writing is what brought the three producers together for the project.
This documentary film celebrates Earl Hamner the man, the storyteller, and how he has enriched our lives through his writing. A diverse group of actors, directors, producers, family and friends have all come together to share their memories of Earl Hamner, Jr. and of working on various shows and movies he has written. Television shows including The Twilight Zone, Falcon Crest, Appalachian Autumn, Nanny and the Professor and The Waltons are highlighted. Movies such as Spencer’s Mountain, Palm Springs Weekend, Heidi and Charlotte’s Web are also included.
Earl Hamner’s family was the model for The Waltons television show. The character of John-Boy was based on Earl, the oldest of eight children. It is Earl’s voice that we hear as the narrator at the beginning and at the end of each episode. “There were eight of us,” Earl recalls. “Tall, lean, fine-boned, red-headed youngsters growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Depression. My father called us ‘his thoroughbreds,’ and put us on a pedestal. CBS called us The Waltons, and put us on television.”
In the film, Earl travels back to his childhood home in Schuyler, VA to visit with his siblings. He takes us to one of his fishing holes, to the Baptist Church he attended as a youngster, and to several other special places. Actors including Richard Thomas, Susan Sullivan, Judy Norton, Carole Cook, Michael Learned, James Best, Mary McDonough, Bill Mumy, Eric Scott, Lorenzo Lamas, Ronnie Claire Edwards, Veronica Cartwright and many others who worked with Earl, share their comments and great stories about him.
Doris and Earl Sr. strongly encouraged all the children in their growing family to excel, and Earl Jr. became interested in writing at an early age.
He was writing his numbers at the age of two and reading at four. His poem “My Dog” was published on the children’s page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch when he was six. Earl claims he knew from that day he’d become a writer.
Schuyler was a company town, the home of The Alberene Stone Corporation, which quarried and milled soapstone. “Our town was located in that part of the Blue Ridge known as The Ragged Mountains,” says Earl. “We were six miles from Route 29, the main artery connecting the great cities of the north to the south. We reached 29 along a country road, the most beautiful stretch of rural road known to man, the Rockfish River Road.
“We lived in company-built houses and bought our goods from the company store. Schuyler had been a prosperous little village, but, when the Great Depression came, the mill closed. My father found work in Waynesboro and could only be home with his family on holidays and weekends. We missed him, and, on Fridays, even before the sun went down, my mother could be seen at the window looking down the road.”
Earl Hamner’s boyhood home in Schuyler, VA, is where he put pencil to paper and began the journey that forever enriched our lives with his inspirational writing.
Michael McGreevey, one of the producers of the film, recalls one of his favorite experiences during the filming. “On our recent visit together to his hometown of Schuyler, VA, Earl Hamner taught me the fine art of ‘porch-sitting.’ The key is to relax, take your time, savor the moment. The silences are just as important as the conversation. Sitting with me on the porch of his family’s home, Earl reminisced about the many evenings he spent there with his parents and siblings.”
His talent for storytelling was certainly developed and nurtured on that porch as he would listen to his father, grandmother, uncles, and family friends entertain one another with tales about their life experiences in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Years later, Earl would write “porch-sitting” scenes into the storylines of The Waltons, such as the very memorable episodes “The Achievement” and “Grandma Comes Home.”
“I was raised on folk songs and folk stories,” says Earl, “and I suppose it was inevitable that this kind of material worked its way into my writing.”
“Virginia Dreams, they always take me back
Virginia Dreams, there’s no other place like that
No matter where life takes me or how far away it seems
I keep going back to my Virginia Dreams”
– Jimmy Fortune/ Justin Peters, songwriters
In the documentary, another legendary Nelson County native, Country/Gospel artist Jimmy Fortune (formerly of The Statler Brothers), pays tribute by performing and dedicating the song “Virginia Dreams” to Earl.
“When I was growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression,” Earl observes, “we always had friends and neighbors stopping by. My mother or father would meet them at the door and say: ‘Come on in and sit till bedtime!’”
Earl, Paul, Audrey and Nancy Hamner welcomed our crew into their childhood home and shared their memories of growing up in this house. Later, our filming wrapped appropriately with the Hamner siblings saying “GOODNIGHT” to each other as they did so many years before. Viewers of The Waltons are very familiar with this iconic closing to each episode, which was a nightly ritual at the Hamner home.
“The Conflict” episode of The Waltons originally aired September 12, 1974. Written by Jeb Rosebrook and directed by Ralph Senensky, this episode is still one of the most popular of the series. It tells the story of how Aunt Martha Corinne Walton’s home is in danger of being torn down because of the right-of-way for the Blue Ridge Parkway. The entire Walton family comes to her aid and tries to stop the construction.
In reality, many families in the area were forcefully evicted from their mountain homes in the Blue Ridge to pave the way for the Skyline Drive. In the early years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term as president, the Blue Ridge Parkway was designed to run from the southern end of Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap, Virginia, into North Carolina and, in Virginia, was a part of the Shenandoah National Forest. Work was done by the Works Progress Administration, the Emergency Relief Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In the documentary, Jeb Rosebrook recalls writing this episode and also shares comments about his long friendship with Earl: “In the summer of 1952, while working for the Buildings and Grounds Department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a coworker told me the story of his family having been forcefully evicted from their mountain home in the Blue Ridge to pave the way for the Skyline Drive.
“Twenty years later when I remembered this story, a mountain matriarch named Martha Corinne came to mind (I named her after two of my aunts). She was magnificently portrayed by Beulah Bondi, and the honesty of the story was made possible in part by research provided by Earl Hamner’s mother. All in all this was a special writing experience, one that went so beautifully from the page to film.”
In EARL HAMNER STORYTELLER, Richard Thomas’ genuine love for Earl, as well as his Walton siblings, was evident as he talked with the crew, mentioning favorite episodes and guest stars. Thomas discussed his decision to leave the show after five years, when his original contract expired and his theater roots were calling him to broaden his horizons.
It is a decision he does not regret, although he did miss his Walton family and was delighted to reprise his role as John-Boy in the reunion movies. He still keeps framed mementos from his last episode. Richard also discussed how Earl’s writing touched his life beyond portraying him as John-Boy.
“I have to say that no one—I’ve been doing this now for 55, 56 years and there’s not another single person, anywhere, with us or no longer with us—that has contributed more to my life as an artist, as an actor, who’s given me greater opportunities. To provide an actor with a role like John-Boy is a greater gift than you can possibly know. It’s a gift that I still appreciate till this day and I always will. I can never thank you enough.”
In the closing narration of “The Achievement” episode, Earl says, “I did leave Walton’s Mountain to live and work in New York City. I wrote more novels and raised a family of my own. Today, we live in California, but no matter where I am, the call of a night bird, the rumble of a train crossing a trestle, the scent of crab apple, the lowing of a sleepy cow can call me home again. In memory I stand before that small white house, and I can still hear those sweet voices.”
It has been a year-long labor of love and we’re happy to report that the EARL HAMNER STORYTELLER documentary has been filmed. Many of you have asked when and where the documentary will be available. The film has entered post production and we will have more information about its availability in the near future. Some of you have asked how you can be involved in the project and offered your support. You can get involved; have a look at our IndieGoGo page. We greatly appreciate your help.