Interview: Earl Hamner (2005)

earl1Best known as the creator and producer of the long-running CBS series The Waltons, Earl Hamner’s work ranges from his early screenplays for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone to his script for the 1973 animated musical adaptation of E.B. White’s children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. The 83-year-old bestselling writer sat down to talk about remaking Charlotte’s Web, his new book, and his classic television movie, The Homecoming, at his office in Studio City, California.

Scott Holleran: Did you watch your CBS television movie The Homecoming when it aired on Christmas Eve in 1971?

Earl Hamner: Yes. But I was so moved by it, I had to leave the room, so no one would see me cry.

Scott Holleran: What moved you?

Earl Hamner: I think it was the end. The narration.

Scott Holleran: It was your voice in narration—

Earl Hamner: [Laughing] Yes, I know. I think it was the truth of the fact that I was so far from family, that my father was dead, that my mother was alone in the house—because that was the gist of the closing narration—and, then, to hear the sounds of the children saying ‘goodnight.’

Scott Holleran: You were the first born of how many children?

Earl Hamner: Eight.

Scott Holleran: With such a tremendous sibling responsibility, how did you discover your ability to create?

Earl Hamner: I can’t remember. As the oldest, as in every case, you’re still more parent than sibling. I still feel that. I have one brother left and two sisters but I’m still the oldest. I can remember at one point, while living in Cincinnati, and one of my brothers and one of my sisters were living with me and I realized that if I was ever going to write a novel, the time had come and I moved out. I went to Arkansas and lived in the mountains. I didn’t abdicate my responsibility, I simply moved out—[motivated by] my own selfishness—and self-preservation—to become the novelist.

Scott Holleran: The spinster characters were carried into the TV series, The Waltons. In The Homecoming, they took young John-Boy in and served him a beverage known throughout the series as the Recipe. Was it an alcoholic beverage?

Earl Hamner: Oh, absolutely, I think they made it with apple brandy. There were a lot of orchards in the area. In the show, we called them sisters, but, in real life, they were a mother and daughter and they lived in a real town about eight miles from where we grew up. My father, his brothers and everybody somehow found it necessary to stop [by for a drink]. They did serve the Recipe but in a tin dipper, which I improved considerably because in the series [The Waltons], I had them use a silver goblet. That’s the lovely thing about being a writer; you can improve on the ordinary.

Scott Holleran: Before The Homecoming, your novel Spencer’s Mountain was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. Was Spencer’s Mountain a hit?

Earl Hamner: Box office wise, yes, and it’s still shown on American Movie Classics. As it turns out, I own the stage rights, so I am involved with a stage version of Spencer’s Mountain at regional theaters.

Scott Holleran: Why was the name Spencer changed to Walton, and Clay to John, as in John-Boy, for the TV series?

Earl Hamner: When Warner Bros. bought [the rights to] Spencer’s Mountain, they had an option on the next novel. So, in order to sell The Homecoming to Warner Bros.—and, since Spencer’s Mountain was still making money—they didn’t want me to use Clay-Boy. We had to change the name from Spencer to Walton. They felt it would interfere with the distribution of Spencer’s Mountain. It was a legal decision.

Scott Holleran: Your screenwriting philosophy embraces a positive view of man. Does that idea drive your work?

Earl Hamner: I’ve been guided greatly by William Faulkner’s [Dec. 10] 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm. In it, he says: “I’ve declined to accept the fall of man.” [Faulkner’s thesis was] that, in the last, ding-dong ringing of the bell, when it’s all over, there will be a tiny voice, and it is the voice of man prevailing. It’s quite a lovely piece and it’s always been my touchstone.

Scott Holleran: Is is true that The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling hired you?

Earl Hamner: Yes. He gave me my first job in Hollywood, in screenwriting. When I came here, I thought it would be very easy because I could write for a show like The Andy Griffith Show and, of course, when I got to town I found out it was entirely staff written. Eventually, the job with Rod opened up. I’ll always be grateful to him.

Scott Holleran: Where you grew up in Virginia’s Mountains, was there a place to see movies?

Earl Hamner: Oh, no. The closest we had to a movie house—this was a company town where we had one of the largest deposits of soapstone, used for laboratory sinks and it’s also an ingredient in paint, in the world—closed during the Depression. Like many company towns, Schuyler furnished us with a doctor, schoolteachers and a dentist, so we were not totally cut off from the other side of the mountain.

Scott Holleran: Where did you see movies?

Earl Hamner: Someone hung a bedsheet across the front of the school auditorium and I can remember showing the first movie I ever saw, The Return of Fu Manchu. I think I was probably five or six years old. I was terrified because in one scene a man is sort of strapped in, his hands are bound and a pendulum is coming closer and closer to chopping him in two. Whatever happened I don’t remember because I climbed into my father’s lap and hid my eyes. I must find that film someday. My parents took me to whatever was showing on that bedsheet that passed for a movie screen.

Scott Holleran: Were there any other memorable early motion pictures?

Earl Hamner: The next one in my memory is a field trip to Charlottesville [Virginia] organized by one of my high school teachers to see Gone with the Wind and I was very impressed. I was about 15. There were also some cowboy movies with Gene Autry and Tom Mix that I had seen. I loved movies. It never occurred to me that I would write one someday.

Scott Holleran: Yet you did—Spencer’s Mountain—though the location was switched from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Wyoming’s Grand Teton Mountains. Are you pleased with the picture?

Earl Hamner: I would say maybe with 60 percent of it. The very fact that the Blue Ridge Mountains are very old, quiet, settled mountains rich with tradition and the people that occupy them go way back in our history. To suddenly switch to the Grand Tetons, which stick up in the sky—very beautiful, young mountains—and the people are different, they’re very Western, and the scale was too large. Everything was too large. The casting itself, while their performances were lovely, were big people. I called my father to say that the [character] Clay Spencer, who was based on my father, was being played by Henry Fonda and my father, who couldn’t say one sentence without using a curse word, with great awe, said: “Well, I’ll be a sonofabitch.” The stipulation under which I sold the work was that Delmer Daves, the director, would write the script. While he did a creditable job, that was a wrench to move [the story to] the Grand Tetons, which implied certain changes in verisimilitude. Also, Delmer catered to what he felt was an audience need and the movie was a little leering about human relationships.

Scott Holleran: Any interesting stories about Maureen O’Hara?

Earl Hamner: I can tell you one story but I don’t know if it’s detrimental to her image. Delmer called and said he wanted to have an Earl Hamner Day and I was to come over and meet everybody on the set. Basically, I’m shy and the idea of an Earl Hamner Day was appalling to me. But I was working on the set at that time on Palm Springs Weekend and, one day, I said to my wife, let’s go over to the [Spencer’s Mountain] set and not tell them who we are. So, I went into the studio. They were in the middle of a scene and we evidently were in Miss O’Hara’s line of view and were distracting her and she said: “Would you please have those people removed?” So, we left. I’m sure she had no idea I was the author of what she was doing. But I found it amusing.

Scott Holleran: Did you meet Henry Fonda?

Earl Hamner: I did see Mr. Fonda a couple of times. There was some prejudice that said that he hated his work [in Spencer’s Mountain]—that he hated the picture—and he explained that he was sorry that had been the impression. He said, “I took the job from reading the book which I loved because I like homespun material,” which I think he meant sincerely.

Scott Holleran: Did his experience with Spencer’s Mountain affect whether Mr. Fonda played the same character in the television series, The Waltons?

Earl Hamner: No, because we offered him that role and I remember very clearly he said “I’m too old to play second banana to a 15-year-old.”

Scott Holleran: And James MacArthur?

Earl Hamner: I never met MacArthur. I thought he did a lovely job. You know who I love in that movie? Wally Cox. He was marvelous.

Scott Holleran: Of course, Spencer’s Mountain led to Patricia Neal’s comeback picture following her stroke, The Homecoming. How was she cast?

Earl Hamner: It was [director] Fielder [Cook]’s idea. She had arrived with the script memorized. She was incredible.

Scott Holleran: Is it true that Miss Neal insisted on location shooting where you shot Spencer’s Mountain, in the mountains of Wyoming?

Earl Hamner: Yes. This time, we didn’t shoot toward the steep mountains—the Grand Tetons—and Fielder, who was a Virginian, knew how to use that location so that it looked like the Appalachians. It might seem like a waste of money but it wasn’t because we could get snow there. The Homecoming continues to have a life of its own. A production was done last December in my home county [Nelson County, Virginia] at the Hamner Theater—they have named a theater for me back there—and they do The Homecoming [on stage] every year. At the moment, there are stage versions of two of my Twilight Zone [episodes] in rehearsal. One is called “Jezebel” and the other is called “The Bewitching Fool.”

Scott Holleran: What was it about Rod Serling that drew you to him and him to you?

Earl Hamner: He sensed that I had something to bring to The Twilight Zone. He was always looking for new avenues and, because of my Appalachian [Mountains] background, he could see that I had the stuff. He would never say “why don’t you do this?” He would say “what would you like to do next?” It shows his openness and trust. I had never written anything in the fantasy area—except when I was young and had written stories about New York, though I had never been to New York—and I didn’t think it was something I could do.

Scott Holleran: Are you working on anything new for television?

Earl Hamner: Yes. I have had an idea for a TV series called Foundations, about a family who are fed up with life in Los Angeles. Everyone is threatened. The man owns a nursery and he’s held up, his son is subjected to road rage, his wife is threatened at work, his daughter is nearly raped and he says, “to hell with this, I’m going back to Virginia, where my family owns an apple orchard” and there are stones which are the foundations which the family built when they first moved there from England and Scotland. He wants to build a house and a new life. I offered it to CBS and Les Moonves rightfully turned it down. I think he knew that if I were to write it, it would be [like] The Waltons, which would be wrong for now. What it requires is a gritty language, a gritty story, much more realistic to today’s writing than I’m capable of because, at 83, I obviously can’t write 13-year-old dialog. I told my biographer the story and he said “you’ve got to write it anyway,” and he sent me a script [he had written] the other day and it is wonderful—the language is today, the situations are threatening—it ain’t The Waltons. He’s written it as a two-hour movie and we’re going to offer it to Hallmark. So, I’m not dead yet.

Scott Holleran: Was your movie, Where the Lilies Bloom, well received?

Earl Hamner: Yes. It was an opportunity to work with Robert Radnitz, who was one of the loveliest producers I’ve ever met. He always did films on location, like Misty, at Chincoteague, which Robert knew about because he went to the University of Virginia. He was great to work with.

Scott Holleran: That did not do as well as Spencer’s Mountain?

Earl Hamner: No, it didn’t. I don’t even recall who released it. Harry Dean Stanton was one of the actors. I guess it didn’t have the big name [cast]. Some attractive children. It was a nice film.

Scott Holleran: You also adapted Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, directed by Delbert Mann (Separate Tables, That Touch of Mink), starring Maximilian Schell and Jean Simmons, for television. What was your approach?

Earl Hamner: I tried to enrich Heidi’s story, giving a little depth to the characters.

Scott Holleran: NBC contracted you to write it as a two-hour movie?

Earl Hamner: Yes. James Franciscus produced it.

Scott Holleran: You wrote Palm Springs Weekend—?

Earl Hamner: —oh, God [laughs].

Scott Holleran: Who’s in Palm Springs Weekend?

Earl Hamner: Everybody that they had under contract at Warner Bros.: Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Stefanie Powers, Robert Conrad. People rent it now to laugh at it. That movie did well. I think Mr. Warner had called me in and said he got this idea after [the success of] Where The Boys Are and he wanted me to go to Palm Springs at Easter and bring back an idea. So I did. He brought in some comedy writer to add some comedy. I recently had lunch with a man named Mike Hoey who was the producer of the film. We recalled a lot of good times.

 Scott Holleran: What was Jack Warner like?

Earl Hamner: He was a very affable man. I understand that he despised writers. He had done a mass firing and there were some people, who had gotten a little obviously drunk at lunch, and they were wandering around the studio and he said “go down and get those writers off the lot!” [Laughs.] He just assumed they were writers. But I think he liked Spencer’s Mountain and he obviously felt some kind of bond with me that worked to my advantage.

Scott Holleran: New York children’s writer E.B White, who wrote Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, sanctioned you writing the screen adaptation of his novel, Charlotte’s Web, right?

Earl Hamner: Yes, he approved me. There’s a misconception that Mr. White chose me to write Charlotte’s Web. He knew my work but he didn’t call my agent.

Scott Holleran: How did you come to know that E.B. White had approved of your selection as the writer for the adaptation?

Earl Hamner: Through [the late] Joe Barbera [partner in animation studio Hanna-Barbera] because Joe was the real producer. I worked more closely with Joe and he told me that I had been approved, which was difficult because Mr. White was very much involved in offering advice and suggestions [about the movie] and we had those wonderful songwriters, the Sherman brothers [Mary Poppins, Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World”], and Mr. White said that he would have preferred Mozart. The Sherman brothers matched the material so beautifully—Mozart would have been all wrong.

Scott Holleran: With appealing family themes and writing for animation, did you ever wind up working with Disney?

Earl Hamner: I did do an early version of Walt Disney’s Rascal, a movie they did about a raccoon. I remember going to the Disney company and meeting one of his producers who said “come, let’s go, Walt wants to meet you.” There were two producers with me and they said, “now, don’t be nervous.” Approaching Mr. Disney’s office, I realized they were rigid with terror—scared to death of this man I had associated with such fondness. I found him very affable. Later, when they were auditioning raccoons, I met [Mr. Disney] out in the yard and the raccoon wrangler had dropped two of these big, fat things, and Walt [picked one of them up and] handed me this [raccoon] and said, “here, you hold it.” I had an office over there while I worked on the outline. I can’t remember exactly what happened. They must not have liked my outline. They must not have liked what I was doing. It was a nice film. There was another time when I did go to Disney and I had a meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg about Pocahontas—and he said “we’re [already] two years into that project.”

Scott Holleran: Do you concern yourself with the box office of your movies?

Earl Hamner: Hardly ever. I was always going on to the next thing. Probably to my detriment because I should have been more concerned with box office and contracts. I accepted modest terms, which I’ve done on many occasions. It’s not that the business side is unworthy of thought, it’s just that it never really interested me that much. I’m interested in the creative side.

Scott Holleran: Charlotte’s Web was a modest theatrical success by most accounts but sold extremely well on home video—

Earl Hamner: Yes, it did. The way I know is because whenever I meet young people, they say, “that was my babysitter.” Older people talk about The Waltons but younger people always say they loved Charlotte’s Web or The Twilight Zone.

Scott Holleran: Have you seen the remake of Charlotte’s Web?

Earl Hamner: I know nothing about it, but I’m apprehensive that they have made it cute. This is a story about love and death and sacrifice and regeneration and adult themes told through children’s literature. But I don’t think E.B. White was even thinking about children when he wrote it; he was thinking about significant themes and to trivialize the regenerative power of life would be terrible.

Scott Holleran: Will you see the remake?

Earl Hamner: I’m not sure. I might just watch the tape of the original [laughs]. Dakota [Fanning] used to have an agent next door [to Mr. Hamner’s office]. She used to come in and sit right there and say “what will we discuss today?” She’s a darling little girl. She’s just an—an adult. She’s very adult. She used to come in and we had great times together. We would discuss world events and the industry.

Scott Holleran: The Waltons, which you created, was one of the most successful family dramas in the history of television. How is it remembered by your fans?

Earl Hamner: I encounter two attitudes about The Waltons: either it’s what people remembered about the way they grew up [during the Depression] or the way they wish they had grown up. So, it was either wish fulfillment or fond memory.

Scott Holleran: Director Ron Howard starred in The Waltons episode “The Gift,” which, according to your biography, led to Ron Howard being cast opposite John Wayne in The Shootist?

Earl Hamner: I didn’t realize that. That was a very moving performance that he did in “The Gift,” in which he played a young kid dying of leukemia. Very sympathetic. He did it with great restraint and intelligence, which I think is one of his hallmarks.

Scott Holleran: You also created the CBS drama Falcon Crest. You made it clear that you saw Falcon Crest as a story arc over time and CBS insisted on cliffhangers, which wasn’t appropriate for your type of writing. Why didn’t they see that?

Earl Hamner: I don’t know. I did have a deal with them at the very end when I resigned that I would be a consultant at a very nice salary. Something happened—which I have never really understood—and my agent called one day and said they were not picking me up after the first month [as a consultant]. That was disappointing to me, being the sort of goose that laid the golden egg.

Scott Holleran: You wrote a novel with former MGM president Don Sipes, Murder in Tinseltown, in which there’s a rape scene, a “f—k you” and references to Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and A Place in the Sun—?

Earl Hamner: —I enjoyed working with Don, who also ran Universal Pictures television and has since died, I’m sorry to say. We had traveled together and he was great. Writing is by nature a lonely profession. It was fun to work with him.

Scott Holleran: You wrote for NBC’s Today Show?

Earl Hamner: I would interview a person, make notes and pass those notes on to [host] Dave Garroway and he would do the interview.

Scott Holleran: Do you watch television?

Earl Hamner: I love The Sopranos. I keep wanting to watch 24. I often work at night but my wife watches a lot of TV. She said ‘you really ought to watch Desperate Housewives‘ so I did and I was hooked—but then I was unhooked rather quickly. Sometimes at three o’clock in the morning, I find very watchable things on TV.

Scott Holleran: Which movies do you like?

Earl Hamner: I don’t think I’ve seen a movie in ages. I can’t even remember one. Let’s see, there were some right around the time of the [2005] Oscars. The gay cowboys—Brokeback Mountain. It was a love story. You forgot these people were men—they were people that loved each other. The actors were wonderful and the scenery was great and, to their credit, they did a love story that was credible and positive. We saw Capote. I thought it was remarkable. I was especially interested in seeing what they did with [To Kill a Mockingbird author] Harper Lee because she’s been so kind to me with endorsements of my work. I thought they did a lovely job. Catherine Keener was beautiful and caught the essence of what I imagine Miss Lee is like. I was amazed because I’ve always associated Capote with In Cold Blood and, not long ago, I picked up a copy of his short stories. As I read them, I realized what a genius he was as a writer and how he improved with each story.

Scott Holleran: The actor who portrayed John-Boy, Richard Thomas, wrote about you: “[Earl Hamner] also provided [The Waltons] with a kind of single-minded, clear, creative point of view, an observation of a time and place in American history and a group of people in the form of regional American fiction writing of the highest order.” He makes an interesting artistic point about your storytelling other than that fact that it’s wholesome. How do you describe your literary philosophy?

Earl Hamner: I don’t sit down to prove anything. Someone came to me once and said of The Waltons: “I saw the show last night and I thought that the moral was wonderful.” And I began to think: “what moral?—I don’t recall a moral” and, then, it occurred to me that the people in what I had written had been moral people who overcame difficulties. This notion ties into the time when I was on my way to college on what turned out to be a [religious] ministerial scholarship. Probably very deep within me but masked is a Baptist preacher, that’s there’s some conscience back there that looks for the affirmative but tries to be aware of evil or temptation—or the Devil. Old Scratch. I grew up in that Baptist community where the Devil was looking over one shoulder and Jesus was looking over the other and you either had one choice or the other—you were either going to Heaven or to Hell. I was so terrified of going to Hell, I became a good boy.

Scott Holleran: That brings us to [the non-fiction] Generous Women: An Appreciation. Your latest book pays tribute to favorite women in your life, among them actress Tallulah Bankhead (Lifeboat).

Earl Hamner: I was working as a staff writer at NBC and one of my jobs was to write obituaries and I wrote one for actor Lionel Barrymore. We were able to persuade Tallulah Bankhead, who was a friend of his, to read it for radio broadcast. The day it was to be recorded, I went to meet her at her hotel [residence]. I got there around ten o’clock [in the morning] and her companion at the time was a comedian named Patsy Kelly, who opened the door and said “Miss B’s still asleep but y’all have a seat and I will go wake her.” She went back to the bedroom of the apartment and you could hear this growling, moaning, coughing hoarse voice and she eventually appeared at the door in this sort of slinky negligee in barefoot and she did a pose, leaning against the door—the way actresses are supposed to—and she just said: “Champagne.” And, when Patsy asked if it was for everyone, Tallulah said, “only for me, darling.” [Laughs.] I would run into her because she had a radio show at the time, called The Big Show, and she would always remember me and ask about my writing. There was a man we knew in common and he was a very stuffy, pompous ass, and he told everybody he had an operation coming up and he was so serious about the operation that everyone said it must have been a brain tumor. Later, we learned it was a hemorrhoid operation. When I ran into Tallulah later and I told her about it, she said, “well, darling, it was only his brain after all.”

Scott Holleran: Actress Jane Wyman is another of the generous women you write about in your new book…

Earl Hamner: I call her the Gift of Royalty because she represents royal Hollywood stardom. She was that way in person. She has a radiance, whatever that is that stars have.

Scott Holleran: Who else has it?

Earl Hamner: That’s one of the problems I have with today’s people, I don’t detect radiance. I detect ambition. Henry Fonda had it, that magnetism, in person. I never met her but I saw Katharine Hepburn in person once—and she had it, in her posture, in the way she carried herself, the confidence, the aura of a star. I didn’t work with her but I did interview Bette Davis once. She had it. I would say Richard Thomas has it—Richard is a star. It comes from a very deep talent, a great humanity, humility, and intelligence. He has all those things.

Scott Holleran: What was Oprah Winfrey like to work with?

Earl Hamner: She was magnetic and bright and fascinating. I was always in awe of her. I’m still starstruck. We did a TV series, Women of Brewster Place, which was quite well done but I don’t think the audience went in for Oprah playing a 65-year-old woman in the [housing] projects.

Scott Holleran: You were drafted into the United States Army during World War 2?

Earl Hamner: Yes. I served in Paris after the [Allied] liberation. They were still fighting in the streets of Paris when I arrived there and there were some [Nazi] holdouts. German WACS had lived in the barracks where I moved into. Pictures of Adolf Hitler were still on the wall. You know how we have copies of the Gideon Bible where we go [i.e., in some hotel rooms]? They had copies of [Adolf Hitler’s] Mein Kampf [My Struggle] in the dresser drawers. But I was never shot at. I was fascinated with Paris. The closest I had come to knowing first hand what [the war] had been like was that there was an old man who worked in this depot. He and his wife invited me to come to dinner. That evening they confessed that they had murdered a Nazi soldier—and these were old farmers.

Scott Holleran: Paris figures into one of your unpublished [since published; click on title] works, Odette, the Singing Goose?

Earl Hamner: That’s still making the rounds of the publishers. My wife and I did a [French] barge tour from Toulouse to Bordeaux along the canal. We went through where they raise the geese that are [made] into pate. I saw these beautiful geese and I wondered what would happen if it developed some quality, like in Charlotte’s Web, that keeps the animal alive. So, I developed a story about Odette, who discovers that she has a beautiful singing voice. She becomes captured by two brothers that make pate—one is named Fromage—they’re feeding her to make her into pate and eventually she ends up singing at the Paris opera. She saves her own life by singing.

Scott Holleran: Explain your philosophy of family.

Earl Hamner: You come back to the family for sustenance and nurturing. It’s like a turtle shell; you do carry it with you—that sense of support. All of the Waltons really do intend and do get away [from the central family]—to marriages, to careers, to other parts of the world, but they’re sustained by that early experience. A family should not be smothering. My mother used to have a wonderful, fraying piece [of paper] in one of her wallets that said something like ‘children should be given wings in order to fly’.

Scott Holleran: At 83, you’re working on a stage adaptation and a new TV show. Is that what brings you into the office?

Earl Hamner: It gives me a whole new project to do. Ordinarily, what I am doing is closing down. I’m making lists of things where certain things go to make it easier for my wife and my children for when I die, which could be tomorrow [laughs], but if I go, I go without any regret. It’s a wonderful life and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. [Pauses] I’d like to do it again [laughs].

Originally posted on Box Office Mojo in 2005.