Earl Hamner Jr., the Virginia-born writer who created not only TV’s folksy, Depression-era family drama “The Waltons” but the California wine country prime-time soap opera “Falcon Crest,” died Thursday. He was 92.
Hamner passed away at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after battling bladder cancer, said his daughter, Caroline.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this obituary said identifed "Falcon Crest" star Robert Foxworth as Robert Foxworthy.
“He was a Virginia gentleman and he loved and cared for all people,” she said. “They broke the mold after they made him.”
In a long career that included writing episodes of “The Twilight Zone” in the 1960s and adapting the E.B. White classic “Charlotte’s Web” for a 1973 animated film, Hamner was best known for tapping his childhood memories of growing up in a large family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression.
“Spencer’s Mountain,” Hamner’s childhood-inspired 1961 novel, was turned into a 1963 movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara.
His 1970 book “The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer’s Mountain,” inspired by Christmas Eve 1933 when Hamner’s father was late in arriving home, was turned into “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” a two-hour CBS television movie that introduced the family, renamed the Waltons, to television viewers in December 1971.
Its success led to the weekly hourlong TV series.
“The Waltons,” with Richard Thomas as John-Boy, the budding young writer modeled after Hamner and the eldest of the close-knit clan’s seven children, debuted on CBS in fall 1972.
With the genteel Hamner providing the wise and reassuring voice-over introduction and postscript to each episode as the grown-up John-Boy, the series quickly became a Thursday night fixture for millions of Americans.
Cecil Smith, The Times’ television critic who had predicted that “The Homecoming” had “all the earmarks of a perennial that will turn up on the network Christmas after Christmas after Christmas,” was equally delighted with the new series.
“It is,” Smith wrote in his review of the debut episode, “as deeply moving and human an experience as an hour episode as it was as a two-hour film special.”
“The Waltons,” which ran until 1981, won five Emmy Awards its first season, including one for outstanding drama series.
Each episode ended with the show’s signature — and often-spoofed — exterior shot of the family’s white, wood-frame two-story house and a succession of voice-overs as the large family bid one another good night: “Goodnight, Jim-Bob.” “Goodnight, Elizabeth; goodnight, Erin.” “Goodnight, Jim-Bob; goodnight, Mama.” “Goodnight, Erin”…
In his guidelines for the series, executive producer Hamner’s primary direction was “to always walk that fine line between excessive sentimentality and believable human warmth.”
“People used to attack the show for being too sweet, too idealistic,” Richard Thomas told TV Guide in 1995. “But it honored the lives of ordinary people, and the simple passages of their lives have as much significance on Walton's Mountain as they do in Buckingham Palace.”
In a 1973 interview with Good Housekeeping magazine, Hamner said he thought “people are hungry for a sense of security. They’re hungry, too, for real family relationships — not just rounding up the family for a cookout but real togetherness where people are relating honestly."
Expanding on his feeling that there was “a need” for the Waltons in contemporary American society, Hamner wrote in a 1972 guest column for The Times: “Audiences in all entertainment media have been brutalized by crudities, vulgarity, violence, indifference and ineptitude.”
With “The Waltons,” he wrote, “we are attempting to make an honest, positive statement on the affirmation of man.”
While still overseeing “The Waltons,” Hamner created “Falcon Crest,” which debuted on CBS in 1981 and ran until 1990.
The hourlong drama set in the fictitious Tuscany Valley in California starred Jane Wyman as the powerful and manipulative Falcon Crest winery owner and family matriarch Angela Channing and Robert Foxworth as her nephew, Chase Gioberti.
Hamner, who was an executive producer on the series, was often asked how the same man who created “The Waltons” could do a show about such ruthless, scheming characters.
“If you are a good writer — and I think I am — you are able to handle any kind of group and imagine their lives,” Hamner said in a 2001 interview with The Times.
After leaving “Falcon Crest” after the fifth season, Hamner formed a production company with TV executive and novelist Don Snipes, whose programs included “Snowy River: The McGregor Saga,” an hourlong series that ran on the Family Channel from 1993 to 1996.
Hamner and Snipes also co-wrote the 2000 mystery novel “Murder in Tinseltown.”
Hamner’s credits include writing the 1963 movie “Palm Springs Weekend” and creating the short-lived TV series “Apples Way” in the 1970s and “Boone,” another short-lived series in the 1980s.
He also wrote the 1968 TV adaptation of “Heidi,” which infuriated football fans when NBC began airing the children’s classic by cutting off the final one minute and 15 seconds of a New York Jets-Oakland Raiders game in which the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final 75 seconds.
The eldest of eight red-haired children in a poor, Baptist family, Earl Henry Hamner Jr. was born July 10, 1923, in Schuyler, Va., a mining and milling village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hamner, whose father worked in a soapstone mill and later as a machinist at a DuPont chemical plant, once described his family as close-knit and “demonstrative in our love, kissing and hugging a lot.”
Although his family library consisted of a Bible and a how-to manual on bee-keeping, his mother taught him to read by the time he was 4.
Two years later, he had his first taste of success as a writer: His poem “My Dog” was published on the children’s page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
He didn’t have a dog, he told The Times in 1999, “and I got one by writing about one, which must have been my impetus to become a writer.”
After graduating from high school in 1940, Hamner attended the University of Richmond on a scholarship. Drafted into the Army in 1943, he spent part of his service assigned to the 542nd Quartermaster Corps in Paris.
After the war, Hamner majored in broadcasting at the University of Cincinnati. After graduating in 1948, he had a stint as a writer at a radio station in Cincinnati before moving to New York, where he was hired as a staff writer for the NBC Radio Network and soon began writing for television.
His first novel, “Fifty Roads to Town,” was published in 1953. The following year, he married his wife, Jane, with whom he had two children, Scott and Caroline.
After moving to Hollywood in 1961, Hamner was hired by Rod Serling to write a script for “The Twilight Zone.”
He wrote eight of them, including one in which a married couple wake up in a strange room after a night of drinking and discover that all the buildings in the small, deserted town are only facades. (It turns out they are miniature figures in a girl’s doll house and they have been brought to another planet as “pets” for a child.)
“I’ve led a charmed life,” Hamner said in the 2001 interview with The Times when he was 78 and still writing eight hours a day. “I’ve known people who have been depressed, and I’ve never had that. I feel that problems are to be solved, and God knows I hope that continues.”
Times staff writer Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report