American author/ screenwriter
Earl Hamner, Jr. was born on July 10, 1923 in Schuyler, Virginia. The roots of his family tree drive deep and far into the history of the area.
Thomas Jefferson owned an estate named Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of his many interests was in the development of a wine industry in the area. A neighbor named Philip Mazzei imported four vintners from the town of Lucca, in Tuscany, in furtherance of that goal. When grapes failed to grow in the region, three of the vintners returned to their homeland. The fourth one, surnamed Giannini, stayed and became an ancestor of Earl Hamner, Jr. That association was to bear fruit later in Hamner's career. The grandparents in the TV series The Waltons were modeled after Hamner's own Italian-American grandparents, Ora Lee and A. Gianniny.
Not far south of Monticello is the tiny town of Schuyler, nestled into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This was the foundation of Earl Hamner's experiences, from which he heavily drew in his writing. Growing up during the Depression surrounded by his large family gave him a wealth of material to write about. Writing was his compulsion and fulfillment during his formative years, continuing forward into a successful career as an author and screenwriter.
Earl Hamner's youth was chronicled in print in 1970 in The Homecoming, which was then to become a TV Christmas special starring Richard Thomas, Patricia Neal, and Edgar Bergen. That 2 hour special was very well received and led to the long running series The Waltons.
Out into the world
Upon graduation from high school, Earl attended the University of Richmond. His college education was interrupted by military service. He served in Paris during the last days of World War II, though he saw no action. Upon completion of his tour he continued his studies, doing work at Northwestern University and graduating from the University of Cincinnati.
His career as a broadcast producer began in Richmond, Virginia at WMBG. Hamner made the move to the Big Apple, (New York City), where he worked for NBC radio. While there, he completed his first novel Fifty Roads To Town, which was published in 1953. New York also was where Hamner met and married his wife Jane. They were to have 2 children, Scott and Caroline.
When the film and TV industry migrated west, Earl Hamner packed up and followed. He continued to write, producing Spencer's Mountain, which became a bestseller. The book was to become a film starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara in 1963, and earned Fonda a Laurel Award Nomination for Top Male Dramatic Performance. The book and film relay the trials of a large family living in the Grand Teton mountains of Wyoming.
Spencer's Mountain, along with Hamner's The Homecoming, became the basis for The Waltons, though the themes were more family oriented for TV, and the setting became the Blue Ridge Mountains of Hamner's youth. The Waltons was a huge success, capturing a devoted audience for its family-friendly themes. The show had a run of 9 seasons, from 1972 until 1981, and was nominated for a staggering 31 awards, winning 14 times. Every week the show was introduced by an unseen narrator. That voice belonged to the creator, Earl Hamner, Jr. Still recognizable is his Piedmont Virginia accent.
Hamner's writing isn't restricted to his rural upbringing in Virginia. He has written for the well regarded CBS Playhouse and The Twilight Zone. He has also reported for NBC's Today Show.
Earl Hamner's screenwriting credits include Where The Lillies Bloom, Palm Springs Weekend, and the perennial children's animated feature Charlotte's Web, based on E. B. White's classic tale.
Lightning strikes twice
Hamner struck pay dirt yet again when he developed the TV series Falcon Crest, delving into the tangled web of a family of California vintners. The series had a long run from 1981 until 1990, racking up 227 episodes. Falcon Crest was much more a prime-time soap opera than The Waltons had ever been. Hamner initially intended Falcon Crest as a much gentler themed series, but CBS wanted it juicier, having it scheduled as a follow up to their blockbuster series Dallas. Hamner complied, introducing sex, greed, avarice, and lavish lifestyle into his work.
Two of Hamner's works have been chosen for inclusion in Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club. Along the way in a career which has spanned half a century, Hamner has garnered an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and 6 Christopher Awards.
The author has published 6 novels and has other projects to keep him busy. He enjoys growing bonsai, is a vintage book collector, and enjoys fishing, traveling, and writing. He is Honorary Director of The Walton Museum, located in his hometown of Schuyler. The museum includes a replica of the Walton family home, modeled after the set of the TV program. It also has a working still capable of producing samples of the recipe, made famous by the Baldwin sisters on the series.
The writer, in collaboration with Don Sipes, has authored a mystery novel, Murder in Tinseltown. He has also penned a children's book, Odette, the Singing Goose, which is, as of this article, unpublished.
It's a small world, after all, just like the song reminds us. I remember watching The Waltons regularly when it was on TV. I remember the familiar close each week with everyone in the family telling everyone else goodnight. It was usually Mary Ellen who would tell Elizabeth (the youngest sibling) goodnight.
Years later, I worked for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. I was a State Game Warden, a uniformed officer charged with enforcing the game, fish, and boating laws of our Commonwealth. Much to my suprise, working in their Richmond, Virginia headquarters was Earl Hamner's youngest sister, the one portrayed on TV as Elizabeth. She was a very nice lady, gracious and helpful in any way she was able. I thought it was a very cool thing to meet her, my brush with celebrity, however distant from its source. From a face in the crowd, let me simply say "Goodnight, Elizabeth".