Michael Learned: The Career, The Life, And Relationships

You may know Michael Learned due to her unforgettable performance as Olivia Walton, however, there is much more to Learned’s story. From an internationally-lived childhood to her love life and children, we will be explaining the ins-and-outs of this wonderful woman’s life, as well as her feelings about losing her on-screen husband, Ralph Waite. 

Image Credits: Getty Images / Film Favorites | Michael Learned, 1970's.


In case you never watched this series, it was created by Earl Hammer and was based on his book “Spencer’s Mountain”. The show ran between 1971 and 1981 and followed the lives of the Walton family during the Depression. Michael Learned played Olivia Walton, who was married to John Walton Sr., who was played by Ralph Waite.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS Photo Archive | The cast of the hit television series 'The Waltons' poses for a promotional photo, 1972.


Michael Learned was born in Washington D.C., and with her family, she moved to a 21-acre farm at the age of six. While this could be seen as a paradise for children, as the open wide space would allow them to have fun every day, the personality of the kids would make them run into trouble.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Archive Photos | Portrait of actress Michael Learned, circa 1970.

At the age of 10, Michael and her siblings sneaked up to their parents' room and stole some money from their father’s wallet in order to buy some candy. Their father eventually found out, and as a punishment, she was made to perform a list of chores in order to acquire enough money to pay her father back.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Max Miller / Fotos International | American actors Michael Learned (who played Olivia 'Livie' Walton) and Richard Thomas (who played John 'John Boy' Walton) each hold their Emmy Awards for Outstanding Continued Performance in a Leading Role, Hollywood, California, May 20, 1973.


While Michael learned (no pun intended) her lesson through collecting eggs, feeding and watering the chickens, milking goats, and cleaning stalls, this experience allowed for the perfect training for the role that would make her famous: Olivia Walton in “The Waltons”.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned (as Olivia Walton), Ralph Waite (as John Walton) in THE WALTONS. January 1, 1974.


However, her life would still run free before she landed the role of Olivia. By age 11, her family relocated to Austria due to her father’s job. While she loved her experience living in a small town, she would eventually move to the big city when her parents sent her out to The Arts Educational School in Hertfordshire, England.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Walt Disney Television | Michael Learned appearing in the ABC tv movie 'Hurricane'.

She later moved to London, where she continued developing her education in acting, and by the time she was 17 she relocated back home to the United States. This is where her love life began to develop, as she met and married Peter Donat, but he wouldn’t be her last husband.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Bret Lundberg / Images Press | Michael Learned at the Emmys circa 1982 in Los Angeles.


Her first husband was a Canadian-American actor called Peter Donat. At the time of their wedding in 1956, Learned was only 17 years old, while Donat was already 28. Throughout their 16 year-long marriage, the pair had three sons together (Caleb, Christopher, and Lucas), however, they would end up divorcing in 1972.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Barney Peterson / San Francisco Chronicle | Peter Donat and Michael Learned acting together in an American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) production Photo ran 12/03/1967.


Three years after divorcing Donat, Michael Learned tried to give love a second chance, this time marrying Glenn Chadwick. The pair was together between 1975 and 1977, and unfortunately, their love affair also ended in divorce. Nevertheless, Michael Learned was not giving up on love, and she met someone else.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Frank Edwards / Archive Photos | Actress Michael Learned with her husband Glenn Chadwick, attending the Golden Globe Awards, Hollywood, California, January 26th 1974.


Two years after divorcing Chadwick, Michael remarried again, this time to actor-screenwriter William Parker. Their relationship seemed to be going well for a long period of nine years, however, in 1988, the two separated as well. While number three was not the lucky one, apparently her fourth marriage seems to be going well.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Sonia Moskowitz / Images | William Parker and Michael Learned circa 1979 in New York City.


In the same year that Parker and Learned separated, she moved on to have her nuptials with her fourth and current husband, the lawyer John Doherty. They have been together since 1988 and currently reside in California. Hopefully, she has found lasting love, and the couple has been together for over three decades!

Image Credits: Getty Images / Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection | Actress Michael Learned and husband John Doherty attend the 48th Annual Tony Awards After Party on June 12, 1994 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City.


Michael Learned was married four times, however, one of those marriages was quite disruptive, and she was a victim of violence. While she never opened up about which husband mistreated her, she commented on the occasions. “There were times where he was physically violent,” she said during an interview. 

Image Credits: Getty Images / Mitch Haddad / Walt Disney Television | Actress Michael Learned.

“I called the cops once, but I decided not to press charges. I should have,” she admitted. She didn’t press charges and has since moved on, having even mentioned that her ex-husband is no longer violent and is even “an outstanding member of the community.”

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton on THE WALTONS.


“I did leave at one point, but there was no one to turn to other than friends,” the actress admitted. “There were no 12-step programs for violence. When I learned that it’s not OK to turn the other cheek, I began to get strong,” she continued. 

Image Credits: Getty Images / Bennett Raglin | Actress Michael Learned attends the 40th Anniversary Reunion Of ''The Waltons'' at Landmark Loew's - Jersey City on December 2, 2011 in Jersey City, New Jersey.

She added that “If you know there’s something better out there and you’re willing to [take] responsibility for your choices, you can have a better life. The life I have today is beyond my wildest dreams!” Luckily, she was able to leave this relationship and make the best out of her life and family.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Bobby Bank / WireImage | Michael Learned attends day 2 of the Chiller Theater Expo at Sheraton Parsippany Hotel on April 25, 2015 in Parsippany, New Jersey.


It is known that Learned had three boys, however only one of them is quite under the public eye. Her oldest son, Lucas Donat, was born on December 18th, 1962, and he decided to follow his mother’s footsteps into the acting scene. He is best known for appearing in the 1978 film “Olmen li: Damien”. 

Image Credits: Getty Images / 20th Century-Fox | William Holden converses with his son Lucas Donat, left, while his nephew Jonathan Scott-Taylor looks on in a scene from the film 'Damien: Omen II', 1978.

Currently, he is working for TrueCar as a Chief Brand Officer, and he has been married to Traci Wald Donat since 1984. The couple currently lives together in Malibu with their daughter. His two younger brothers, Caleb and Chris, have chosen to keep their lives more private and out of the limelight.


There is a lot of mystery surrounding the lives of Learned’s youngest sons, however, what is known is that they have quite a close relationship among the three of them. When their father passed away in 2018, Lucas shared an emotional text on his website, where he mentioned his brothers.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Kevin Winter | Actress Michael Learned arrives at Glamorama presented by Macy's Passport at the Orpheum Theatre on September 16, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.

"On September 10th, 2018, my father passed away with grace and dignity. His wife of 35 years, Marijke, and my brother, Chris, were at his side. My eldest brother, Caleb, and I were in the air on our way as my dad slipped from his earthly body of 90 years into eternity at 6:46 pm," he wrote.

Image Credits: Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection | Michael Learned.


We all know that Michael is not a common name for girls, so in order to avoid any confusion, the production of “The Waltons” would credit her as “Miss Michael Learned”. This was her first major television role, and it came as a surprise to her when she was initially contacted for the role.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Michael Bezjian / WireImage | Actress Michael Learned at The Cable Show on April 30, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

The series producer, Lee Rich, initially found her in a theater where she was acting in a leading role in a play. However, her career didn’t stop when the show aired its last episode, and in fact, she kept making a name for herself in the television industry. So, what did she do after “The Waltons”?

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | From left, Ralph Waite (as John Walton), Richard Thomas (as John Boy Walton), and Michael Learned (as Olivia Walton) in THE WALTONS. January 1, 1974.


She quickly took on another opportunity to continue her career in television, and made a guest appearance in the “Matt’s Love Story” episode of “Gunsmoke”. She played the role of a cool widow named Mike Yardner who falls head over heels with Marshal Matt Dillon.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Earl Gibson III / WireImage | Actress Michael Learned attends Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit"-Los Angeles Opening Night Performance at Ahmanson Theatre on December 14, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

"I was supposed to be a boy," Mike tells Matt during the episode, explaining her name. However, this was not the case for Michael Learned herself, who has said in interviews that her parents wanted to call her "Caleb" should she have been born a boy. According to her, "Michael" was their pick for a girl's name.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection | Actress Michael Learned attends the party for 28th Annual Tony Awards on April 21, 1974 at Sardi's Restaurant in New York City.


"You've got to have Olivia make a mistake and punish the wrong child or something a little more human," she told Hamner. Apparently, he was basing Olivia off his own mom. "Earl, didn’t your mother ever do anything wrong ever?" Michael asked him. "No," he replied. 

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | (L-R) Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton, Will Greer as Zeb Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton, Ralph Waite a John Walton and Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, in the episode 'The Revelation', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," January 13, 1978.

Nevertheless, he eventually accepted her suggestions. "I think that was part of the charm of the show," Michael admitted in an interview with Smashing, "that we weren’t perfect — at least not in the first two years." Television has since evolved in the sense that the more real the characters are, the more successful the show will be!

Image Credits: Getty Images / Jim Spellman / WireImage | Michael Learned during CBS at 75 at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, New York, United States.


“The Waltons” last episode aired almost four decades ago, but the time has finally come for Michael Learned to finally open up about her relationship with co-star and on-screen husband Ralph Waite, having revealed that they “had a deep love for each other” and even went on a date!

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton and Ralph Waite as John Walton on "The Parting". Image dated November 16, 1978.

During an exclusive conversation with the Daily Mail, Michael has revealed about her and Ralph, “We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken it that extra step, and we didn’t. We never did. We thought about it, but we didn’t.” But, they did take at least one step: a date.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton and Ralph Waite as John Walton on "The Empty Nest".


“There was a period where Ralph and I were both single and we did love each other so we made a date and it was going to happen and we got together and we looked at each other and went, ‘Nah, this will never work’,” Learned said

Image Credits: Getty Images / Bettmann | Actress Michael Learned embraces actor Ralph Waite in scene from the TV series The Waltons.

“Thankfully, we had the good sense to not take it to the next step, because I think it would have gotten messy. It might have gotten messy, but our love was very deep and very true.” Michael Learned has since admitted that their “instant chemistry” allowed them to have a lifelong friendship, where Waite became her “spiritual husband”.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton on "The Empty Nest".


“And I think that’s why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will, and I miss him terribly,” she admitted, speaking ahead of the five-year anniversary of his death. “His wife is a very good friend.” Ralph Waite passed away on February 13th, 2014, at the age of 85 due to age-related illness.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Brian Putnam / FilmMagic | Actors Michael Learned and Ralph Waite attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book 'Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton' at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 in West Hollywood, California.

While she remains a veteran of the acting scene, Michael Learned’s life has been through several ups and downs, however, she managed to overcome any difficulty that came her way, thus being an icon to many. What do you think about this story? Let us know in the comments and make sure to share this article with your friends!

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