Earl Hamner, creator of the long-running CBS dramas The Waltons and Falcon Crest, died today of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 92. His daughter announced his death in a Facebook post.
Hamner was best known for his work in the 1970s and ’80s as the creator of The Waltons, which ran from 1971-81 on CBS. His inspiration for the TV series came from his novel Spencer’s Mountain, based on his childhood. After The Waltons — which Hamner also narrated for its entire 211-episode run — he created Falcon Crest, which ran from 1981-90, also on CBS.
Born on July 10, 1923, in Schuyler, VA, Hamner got his start in the mid-1950s writing for such TV shows as The Kate Smith Hour and Justice. He would go on to pen eight episodes of The Twilight Zone, starting with the 1962 classics “The Hunt” and “A Piano in the House” and including one of the series’ hourlong episodes, “Jess-Belle.” He would continue to write for TV through the ’60s, working on such popular shows as Wagon Train, Gentle Ben and Nanny and the Professor.
He also penned the 1968 telefilm Heidi — whose broadcast infamously cut in to NBC’s NFL game, causing outraged viewers to miss a thrilling late comeback by the Oakland Raiders to beat the New York Jets. Dubbed “The Heidi Game,” it had a profound impact on future NFL telecasts.
But Hamner’s legacy will be The Waltons. Based on his 1961 novel Spencer’s Mountain, which had previously been adapted as a 1963 film starring Henry Fonda, the rural drama premiered in September 1972 and would keep its 8 PM Thursday time slot until it wrapped in 1981. It was the No. 1 drama in primetime during the 1973-74 season — No. 2 overall behind network-mate All in the Family — and would remain a top 20 show through 1977-78, when its time frame shifted from the Depression era to World War II. The series followed John and Olivia Walton, seven kids and two grandparents as they eked out a living at the family lumber mill in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The series wasn’t a smash in America’s big cities, but it struck a chord in rural America that fueled its nine-year run, and gave rise to a “Goodnight, John-Boy” catchphrase. Hamner would go on to produce a trio of Waltons telefilms for CBS in the 1990s.
The 1981-82 season saw Hamner score a second consecutive hit series for CBS. Primetime soaps were hot at the time, with TV’s top show Dallas and upstart Dynasty, and Falcon Crest was an immediate hit. From September 1982 through April 1985, the wine-making drama set in Napa Valley was among the top 10 programs in primetime. Having Dallas as its Friday night lead-in certainly helped.
Hamner also created the short-lived 1986 drama Morningstar/Eveningstar.