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Ellen Corby; Actress Played Grandma on ‘The Waltons’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ellen Corby, who won three Emmys for playing the strong grandmother on the hit 1970s series “The Waltons,” has died at the age of 87.

In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Corby generally played modest characters in a rich and textured way.

She appeared in nearly 100 feature films, including “I Remember Mama,” playing Aunt Trina, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1948; “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which she played a depositor who withdrew a small amount of money from the beleaguered Bailey Building and Loan; the original “Sabrina,” in which she was Humprey Bogart’s secretary; “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” in which she was the town gossip; and “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” in which portrayed Martha the maid.

She also had an active career on television. As Hubcaps Lesch, she sold Barney Fife a bad car on “The Andy Griffith Show.” She played Mother Lurch in “The Addams Family” and Miss Hanna the beloved acting teacher in an episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucille Ball meets Orson Welles.

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Corby had a recurring role with Robert Culp in the Western series “Trackdown,” which appeared in 1957-1959, and on the family comedy “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” which ran from 1965 to 1967.

But it was as Esther, the matriarch in “The Waltons” opposite Will Geer, who played Grandpa, that made her a fixture in the hearts of television viewers. She won Emmy awards for her work on the series in 1973, 1975 and 1976 and a Golden Globe in 1974.

The series, a gentle saga about an extended family living in the backwoods of Virginia during and after the Depression, personified the notion of family values. The show was inspired by a 1971 Christmas movie for television, “The Homecoming,” which was based on Earl Hamner Jr.'s novel about his real-life relatives.

The show ran from 1972 to 1981, but Corby’s participation was cut short by a stroke in the late 1970s. She eventually recovered enough to appear in many of the Walton reunion movies that appeared after the series left the air.

Michael Learned, who portrayed Olivia on the series, remembered Corby as “a consummate actress.”

“She had incredible spirit and humor and strength really,” Learned said. “Even after her stroke and she couldn’t speak, she still understood exactly what the scene was about and how to play it.”

Corby was born Ellen Hansen in Racine, Wis., on June 3, 1913. She worked as a chorus girl in Atlantic City for six months before getting her start in the film business as what was then called a script girl, a job that translates to continuity editor these days, for RKO pictures. She made a good living at that kind of work for 12 years before branching out to write a screenplay for an obscure Western called “Twilight on the Trail.”

In 1945, she persuaded RKO officials to put her in front of the camera playing maids in her first three movies. She was prim and small, with a serious expression, and made a name for herself as a character actress.

Her last appearance was in the 1997 TV special “A Walton’s Easter.”

Corby died Wednesday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills.

She is survived by her friend of 45 years, Stella Luchetta of Los Angeles.

“In a way, it’s a blessing,” Learned said Friday, “I think she was ready to go. Acting was her life.”

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Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.


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