Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Interview -- Judy Norton (Actress, Writer, Director)

"You just call out my name
And you know
wherever I am
I'll come running..."
~ Carole King ~

I first fell in love with Mary Ellen (Judy Norton) and the rest of the Walton family when she called her brothers and sisters “...a bunch of pissants” for complaining about her plans to put a bird's nest on the Christmas tree in the holiday TV movie..."The Homecoming.”  I thought Mary Ellen was awesome!  First, because it sounded like she got away with a bit of cursing.  (I was nine, okay?)  And second, I thought she was very cool and really cute at the same time. (I was going on ten.)  "The Homecoming" was my first introduction to the Walton family and it immediately became one of my family's annual holiday viewing traditions.  But it was "The Waltons" TV series that became our goto when any one of us just needed to escape from the daily rat race and chill a while.  To this day, hardly a week goes by that we don't watch an episode or three.  "The Waltons" are like a warm hug.  Like the proverbial chicken soup for the soul.  And I've since fallen in love with Judy Norton many times over.  We all did.

Grandpa Zeb and Grandma Esther. John and Olivia Walton.  And their seven children.  John-Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Ben, Erin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth.  The Walton family.  They were our safe place.  And we continue to watch the shows over and over.  Since "The Waltons," Judy has been successfully involved with almost everything.  Writing, producing, directing and acting in theater, television, and films.  She sings all over the country.  And her latest film, the psychological thriller, "Nowhere To Hide" is available right now on DVD and streaming.  She's the complete package.  But look, Judy Norton will always be known and loved by her legion of fans as the pretty girl filled with wanderlust and a touch of badassery...Mary Ellen Walton.  And I'm glad she's cool with that.  Judy Norton.  Go get you some.

 Judy Norton Interview -- December 2019
Judy Norton

Casey Chambers:  In 1971, you appeared in a lil-bitty TV movie called..."The Homecoming: A Christmas Story" and became part of one of the most beloved families in television history.
What a life-changer.  How did you become a Walton?

Judy Norton:  I'd already been acting since I was about six, so I was always going out on various auditions.  And this particular audition was just for that Christmas movie, "The Homecoming."  At the time we were filming it, nobody knew they were going to turn it into a series.  For the audition, we read the scene in the barn where we were cracking walnuts which was great for me because Mary Ellen had quite a lot to do in that scene.  So it allowed me the opportunity to stand out a bit.  They did something sort of unusual in that they had all the actors who were auditioning for the kids there at the same time.  They would put together a group of boys and girls and take us in like six at a time.  I don't remember if they had any auditioning actors read for John-Boy 'cause I believe that they'd already cast Richard Thomas at that point.  So the casting director may have just read that role with all of the other kids.  I had that one audition and then a couple of times they called me back and we sort of did the same thing.  On the final audition, I guess they just wanted to see us all together.  There were the six of us and they had us all in the room and they looked at us and said, 'Okay.  You are the actors we'd like to have do this film.'

"The Homecoming" - Trailer (1971)

Casey Chambers:  How much did you know about your character Mary Ellen going in?

Judy Norton:  Oh, I knew that she was a tomboy, which I was.  And I knew that she was kind of cocky and outspoken which I was not so much.  So it was really fun to play that character.  I remember I went in wearing cutoff shorts and I was barefoot and I think I had, y' know, like pigtails or something.  I don't remember specifically.  But I remember at some point in later years, an interview was done with Earl Hamner who created the show.  The characters were based on his real-life family.  And at one point in the interview, he talked about that initial audition and said, in regards to me, that when I walked in the room, he just went, 'Oh, that's her.'  So that was kind of nice to hear.

Casey Chambers:  What a sweet thing for Earl Hamner to say.  How cool.  Now, 1971 was a strong year for TV movies.  "Brian's Song" and Spielberg's first film..."Duel" to name just a few.  But "The Homecoming" has gone on to win over the hearts of generations and has become for many an annual holiday movie tradition.  Not too shab at all.

Judy Norton:  Oh, well, thank you.  It's fun to have a show that's become part of the holidays.  One that airs every year during Christmas and Thanksgiving time and people still watch.  So y'know, that's...that's kinda special.

Casey Chambers:  Absolutely.  My family watches it every year.  So, "The Homecoming" was actually the pilot for "The Waltons."  But none of you were aware of it at that point.  How did it become a series?

The Waltons Game by Milton-Bradley (1974)

Judy Norton:  Well, originally it was just intended to be a TV Christmas movie.  We spent five weeks filming "The Homecoming."  Four of which were in Los Angeles at CBS Studios.  And then we spent a week up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Because there were all those scenes where we were outside in the snow and walking the cow from the barn to the house and all those sorts of snow sequences we filmed.  So we spent a week up there.  And while we were filming up there, we somehow started hearing about producers maybe turning it into a series.  Well, I mean, at 13...I understood what a series was, but I didn't understand the process of turning a TV movie into a series.  And who made those decisions.  I thought it was like, 'Oh, the producers want to do it, so it'll happen.'   Which is not at all how it would have happened.

CBS would have had to have been on board and I guess the producers were in conversations with CBS about doing that.  My understanding is at that point in time, the networks were starting to get a lot of pressure from the Moral Majority groups saying that there was too much sex and violence and y'know...non-family type programming.  So CBS basically gave the green light to creating "The Waltons" because the show was supposed to be sort of a 'sacrificial lamb' in a sense. (laughs)  They were going to do this nice little family show that nobody was going to watch...and then they could say, 'See, nobody wants that kind of programming.' (laughs)  'We'll appease all the protestors and then they'll have to shut up because no one's watching the show.'   So yeah, that's literally the story I heard.

They also put us on in this impossible time slot against two shows that were very big hits at the time.  "Flip Wilson" and "The Mod Squad."  When the show first aired, it was like 59 or 60 on the ratings.  But there were some really good things about that time period.  First of all, there were only three major networks.  ABC, NBC, and CBS.  If anyone was gonna watch television, they pretty much had to watch one of those three networks.  There weren't 700 channels and DVRs and internet streaming.  So people at least knew that our show existed.  And the producers went out and they created a grassroots campaign.  And I think they took out articles and ads and stuff like that in magazines, newspapers, whatever.  Particularly in middle America and in the areas of the country where they felt there was an audience for "The Waltons."  And so they built this campaign.

"The Waltons" Opening Theme

Also nowadays, a show might only get three, five, or six episodes for it's first season to test it out.  And if it doesn't find an audience, a show can disappear after two or three episodes and nobody would even know it was there.  Whereas at that point in time, they pretty much gave you a full season.  I don't remember if we were originally given 13 or 26 episodes.  But basically, producers usually had 26 episodes to get their audience.  And over the course of that first season with this grassroots campaign, the ratings just kept climbing.  And by the end of that first season, we were up in at least the top 10, if not the top five.  And we basically stayed there for...I don't know...about seven seasons.  Something like that.  So it was a fortunate time for the show, otherwise, it would probably have been gone in a blip and nobody would've even known it existed.

Casey Chambers:  That's crazy.  And yet, "The Waltons" not only found an audience...but the show went on to run for nine seasons.  221 episodes.  And seven made-for-TV movies.  Doing that many episodes, it has to be hard keeping them all straight, but if you can, are there any episodes, in particular, that stand out for you?

Judy Norton:  Wow. you're right.  I mean, there's a lot of times that fans will come up and say, "Hey, I was just watching such and such an episode.'  And I'm like...'What?' (laughs)  There were so many.  There's a lot I just don't remember.  But some of the ones that really stand out for me are, "An Easter Story." (S:1 E:24/25 - 1973)  I thought it was a really lovely episode.  We were all trying to help our mom who had polio.  And again I also had some fun things to do.  I had to go teach G.W. how to dance. (laughs)  But it was a really sweet episode.

"The Waltons" Promo - "The Quilting"

Then there was the one where our house burned down. ("The Burn Out" (S:4 E:18/19 - 1976)  We all vividly remember that one, because we filmed one Friday at night which was unusual for us.  They had sort of set fire to the house and our dad had gone back in because John-Boy and Erin were missing.  And so like the rest of us were standing outside watching all these flames engulfing the house and not knowing if our family members were gonna make it out.  So it was all very real.  Very emotional.  It was fascinating because we ended up with this whole group of people.  All these looky-loos. (laughs)  All these people from the lot standing around watching us film this.  But it was all very vivid to us.

And the same thing with the episode with the late great John Ritter who played our Reverend Fordwick.  It was the one where he learns about Germany burning books.  And so he decides that Walton's Mountain is going to collect all the books that are in German and have its own ceremonial book burning.  To get rid of all those muddy books, so to speak.  But because the books are all in German, he has no idea that one of the books he was about to burn was a German Bible.  And it was really a very powerful scene. ("The Fire Storm" S:5 E:5 - 1976)

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, yeah, I remember all of those.  I always liked John Ritter.  Seeing him cast in a role so different from his famous Jack Tripper character in "Three's Company" was interesting.  Did you get to know him at all?

Judy Norton:  Oh, he was wonderful.  John Ritter was very funny and lighthearted.  But you'd never know what a prankster he was from the way he played Reverend Fordwick.  Not that he didn't have a serious side.  But he and Richard Thomas were great friends and they were pranksters together.   They were always trying to one-up each other.  Or trying to crack each other up in scenes. Things like that.  It was always fun when John was on the set.  And so yes, I certainly knew him during that time because he did quite a few episodes. He was a wonderful actor.

Casey Chambers:  The elder patriarch and matriarch of the Walton family...Grandpa Zeb and Grandma Esther...were played by the wonderful actors Will Geer and Ellen Corby.  I can't think of a better pair than those two.

"The Waltons" Quilting Song

Judy Norton:  Yeah, they both had such amazing histories in show business.  They had both been in the industry for so many years.  However, Will Geer had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and wasn't able to work for years.  He built a kind of an outdoor theater compound that he created during the '60s or '70s and it still exists today.  So during that period of time, my understanding is when he couldn't work as an actor, he just went back and lived at his property and grew vegetables.  He had a degree in botany.  So, you know, he grew plants.  He planted the actual garden on the back lot...that was sort of the Waltons garden.  And he tended that garden and was always giving us an education in plants.  He'd spew off all the Latin names of these plants.  He also loved Shakespeare.  He loved Woody Guthrie.  And he was just very, very grateful to be working and was always trying to impart that appreciation for the work to us.  The opportunity to those of us who didn't have that kind of an experience.  He was always sort of like, 'Appreciate this.  And enjoy it.'  But he was very much like the character of Grandpa.  He was warm-hearted.  He was generous.  Always trying to help support young aspiring artists and actors and stuff like that.

Casey Chambers:  That kind of explains why we see Ellen Corby in so many of the old movies and TV shows, but Will Geer, as good an actor as he was, not so much.

Judy Norton:  Ellen Corby had started in the industry as a script girl for shows like, "The Little Rascals" and then moved somewhere along the line into acting.  She was in, "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) and had TV roles like on "I Love Lucy" and "The Andy Griffith Show."  She was constantly showing up in movies or episodes of TV shows.

Casey Chambers:  Sure, she played the sweet ol' lady who scams Barney into buying a piece of crap car. (laughs)  And, of course, the scene where George Bailey lays a big smackaroo on Ellen Corby's face in the Building and Loan.  Both classic gems.  Small parts, but you just can't take your eyes off her.  She pops up everywhere!

A very young Ellen Corby in "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946)

Judy Norton:  (laughs)  Yeah, I mean she just, again, had such a prolific career.  And they were both such professionals.  They always showed up on time prepared.  They knew their lines.  They just had that sort of work ethic.  And Ellen was always trying to impart that...particularly to the younger kids.  She was a bit of a mentor to me.  'Cause I think she saw something in me that she felt was similar to her.  Because I had also come up through theater.  I had worked with a theater company as a child.  So I had that kind of discipline and work ethic as well.  Not that as a teenager I was always...I had my moments, (laughs)... but basically, she took me under her wing a bit.  She took the work very, very seriously.  But, y'know, she had the cutest little giggle that you didn't get to hear very often.  Every once in a while when she and Will were doing a scene, you could actually hear her giggle and it was very rare and it was very cute.  It was very girlish.

Casey Chambers:  Did many other celebrities ever unexpectedly wander onto the set for a visit?

Judy Norton:  Well, sometimes. There were people who were working on the lot and somebody from our cast would meet somebody from theirs and they'd come by and visit.  One time, we were at Warner Brothers and "ER" filmed on the same lot.  And Mary McDonough who played Erin somehow had met George Clooney.  And I remember George Clooney coming by and visiting in the makeup trailer or something one day and we were chatting during his "ER" days.  And there was a time when Elton John came on the set.  He came by 'cause he wanted to meet the cast.  Or I think he wanted to meet Richard.  And so he came into our schoolroom and spent about 20 minutes with us or more and just chatted with us.  Our schoolroom was just us.  Initially, we had our own little school trailer and a couple of teachers and stuff like that.  And yeah, he dropped by.

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" - Elton John / Hollywood Bowl (1973)

He chatted with us and then gave us VIP tickets for that point he was doing his "..."Yellow Brick Road Tour."  All of the kids and Ellen Corby went.  I don't remember if anyone else did, but when we went to see Elton's "Yellow Brick Road" concert...he and his band were involved in some sort of event that was happening I think on the backlot of Universal Studios.  It was almost like a fair.  I don't remember if it was some sort of fundraiser or whatever.  But that all was pretty cool.  And we were invited to that.

Mary Ellen pulls the hair out of Erin's scalp

Casey Chambers:  That's a memory to take.  If there was one show of Elton's to be party to...his "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" tour would have been it.  Major scorage!  Were you already a fan?  What's a favorite song or two?

Judy Norton:  Oh, that's tough.  There's so many.  I really like, "Rocket Man."  "Daniel."  "Your Song."  "Crocodile Rock."  I love the whole "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album.  Oh yeah, I'm a fan.

Casey Chambers:  What other music do you enjoy?  Do you remember the first album you actually spent your own money on?

"Tapestry" - Carole King (1971)

Judy Norton:  The first album I ever bought was "Tapestry" by Carole King.  I grew up with classic rock so that's one of my favorite genres, still.  I think we often remember and are most impacted by the music we grew up with.  Crosby Stills and NashElton John.  Loggins and Messina.  A lot of music from that era.  Blood Sweat and TearsChicagoDon McLean.  So those are some of my favorites in terms of rock and roll.  Growing up, my mom sang professionally and the music she listened to was sort of all the standards.  Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra and all of that.  That's what she would listen to on the radio.  So I grew up listening to a lot of that around the house. And she had soundtracks from Broadway shows.  And so I got interested at an early age in musical theater.

I saw my first musical when I was, I don't know, about 15, but I had done a children's theater production of a version of "Cinderella" when I was a kid.  My sister and I did this show on weekends for like a year.  And so I was interested in musical theater and then started studying voice when I was about 16.  When "The Waltons" ended, one of the things that I started doing was theater again and particularly musical theater.  So in terms of what I sing...a lot of it is Broadway.  It's standards.  Great American Songbook.  Sometimes a little bit of country 'cause I've ended up doing shows with country music and stuff.  So I'm a little somewhat all over the map.

Judy Norton

Casey Chambers:  I visited your website recently and since leaving "The Waltons," you've been very heavily involved in writing and directing theater and films.

Judy Norton:  Well,  I guess since about '91, I spent about eight years with a theater company up in Canada writing and directing.  And I've stayed involved with a lot of that.   Not just in the theater but also for film.  I've recently written three films that have been produced and a number of series episodes, and I'm developing some film and television stuff.  And of course, I still act.  Right now I have a film that I'm probably going to be directing next spring.  It's kind of a family drama.  And I have a couple of TV shows that I'm working on with a partner that are being pitched to networks.  So I'm still busy working on both sides of the stage or screen so to speak.

Just last year I had a film released that I co-produced and also starred in and wrote.  So it is one of those projects that is very personal to me.  It was originally called, "Inclusion Criteria" but it was retitled, "Nowhere To Hide".. .which is tough because there's a couple of other films with that same title.  If people are looking for it, "Nowhere To Hide" has my picture on the cover.  And it's streaming on a lot of platforms.  It just recently got picked up by the free Tubi TV and you don't have to pay to subscribe to it. (If you have Roku, you can watch this. ~editor)  The DVD is also available.  So I'd appreciate it if anybody who likes suspense thrillers, and this one is a psychological mind game film...if they like that sort of thing, then they should check it out.  People tell me they liked the surprises and they didn't see it coming.

Casey Chambers:  Who doesn't like popcorn all over their lap?! (laughs)  I love a good jumper.

Judy Norton:  Yeah, great! (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Well, Judy, it's been a treat for me to speak with you this morning.  I wish I could put into words what an important place you and the rest of "The Waltons" cast have found in my own family circle.  Thank you for all the warm moments your show has given us.  And thank you so much for taking time-out to speak with me this morning.

Judy Norton:  Oh, well thank you, Casey.  It's been a pleasure.

Judy Norton Official Website

Judy Norton Facebook

The Waltons Final Goodnight

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

No comments: