The novelist and television writer Earl Hamner Jr. (1923-2016) wrote the novel Spencer´s Mountain, which was published in 1961 and formed the basis for the 1963 film of the same name.
Later, the novel would serve as inspiration for the TV movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” which was broadcast on CBS in December 1971. The success of this movie caused CBS to commission a TV series revolving around the same characters, and this resulted in the immensely popular tv-series The Waltons, which ran on CBS for nine seasons and also spawned several TV-movie sequels.
Hamner is the creator of the well-known U.S. prime time television soap opera Falcon Crest, which aired for nine seasons on CBS in 1981-1990. He also adapted the children’s book Charlotte’s Web into a screenplay for the animated movie of the same name.
Hamner lived a long life and was 92 years old when he passed away from bladder cancer in Los Angeles, California, on March 24, 2016.
Background and childhood
Earl Henry Hamner Jr. (July 10, 1923- March 24, 2016) was born in Schuyler, Virginia to Doris Marion (née Giannini) and Earl Henry Hamner Sr. The Giannini family had migrated to the United States from Lucca, Italy, in the 1700s. On his father´s side, Hamner hailed from Welsh immigrants to Virginia. Until the 20th century, the Hamners grew tobacco near the James River in Virginia, but Hamner Sr. instead raised his family in Schuyler, on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Later, Hamner Jr.´s experiences during his childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains would serve as the foundation for his novel “Spencer´s Mountain” and the tv-series “The Waltons”.
Hamner Jr. was the oldest of eight siblings and had four brothers and three sisters. The brother that was closest to him in age was Clifton Anderson, followed by Paul Louis, Willard Harold and James Edmund. The sisters, from oldest to youngest, were Marion Lee, Audrey Jane and Nancy Alice.
Schuyler was a company town based on soapstone mining for the New Alberene Stone company, and when the Great Depression came the economy of Schuyler was hit very hard. Hamner Sr., who had worked in Schuyler´s soapstone mining industry ever since the birth of Hamner Jr., lost his job when the Great Depression resulted in a complete stop of these mining operations.
After losing his job, Hamner Sr. could not find any work in Schuyler, but managed to be hired as a machinist at the DuPont factory in Waynesboro, roughly 30 miles (48 km) from Schuyler. Instead of moving the family from Schuyler, Hamner Sr. lived in a boarding house in Waynesboro during the week and travelled back to his family for the weekends. The bus did not go all the way to the Hamner house, so the father would always walk six miles from the bus stop. The memory of waiting for his father to complete this walk on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1933 would later inspire Hamner Jr. to write “The Homecoming: A Christmas Special”; the TV-movie which resulted in CBS commissioning the TV-series The Waltons.
During Hamner Jr.´s childhood, the family (except for his father) attended Schuyler Baptist Church.
Hamner earned a scholarship and went to study at Richmond College in Virginia, approximately 70 miles (110 km) from Schuyler. Later, his alma mater would serve as inspiration for the fictional Boatwright University that John-Boy – the oldest son in the Walton family – would attend.
When Hamner was a sophomore, he was drafted into the army because of World War II. He was initially trained to defuse landmines, but was then transferred to the Quartermaster Corps since he knew how to type. After the Nazi invasion of Normandy, Hamner served in France.
After his time in the army, Hamner attended Northwestern University, a private research university in Evanston, Illinois. Founded in 1851,Northwestern is the oldest chartered university in Illinois.
Hamner graduated from the University of Chincinnati, Ohio with a degree in broadcast communications.
Writing for the screen
Examples of Hamner´s work as screenwriter
- In 1954, he wrote the episode “Hit and Run” for the legal drama Justice.
- In the early 1960s, he contributed eight episodes to The Twilight Zone. Having his first script accepted for this tv-series was a big milestone for his career as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
The eight episodes:
- “The Hunt” (1962)
- “A Piano in the House” (1962)
- “Jess-Belle” (1963)
- “Ring-a-Ding Girl” (1963)
- “You Drive” (1964)
- “Black Leather Jackets” (1964)
- “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (1964)
- “The Bewitchin’ Pool” (1964)
- The 1963 movie Palm Springs Weekend was written by Hamner and produced by Michael A. Hoey. It received decent reviews and made a profit for the studio, but did not become a major success at the box office.
- Hamner wrote or co-wrote eight episodes for the series Gentle Ben, a show about a boy and his pet black bear. The episodes aired in 1967-1969.
- In 1970, he wrote or co-wrote four episodes for the sitcom Nanny and the Professor.
- The Homecoming: A Christmas Story written by Hamner for CBS in 1971 resulted in CBS commissioning the TV-show The Waltons.
- Hamner wrote the screenplay for Charlotte’s Web, a 1973 animated musical drama film based on the 1952 book of the same name by E.B. White. The film, like the book, is about a an intelligent spider named Charlotte who saves her pig friend Wilbur from being slaughtered. Despite receiving bland reviews upon release, the film developed a strong public following over the years, partly thanks to it becoming available on VHS. In 1994, it surprised the critics by becoming one of the best-selling titles of the year, over 20 years after its premier.
- Other examples of teleplays by Hamner are Highway (1954), Heidi (1968), Appalachian Autumn (1969), Aesop’s Fables (1971), Where the Lilies Bloom (1974), and The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story (1983).
TV-series created by Hamner
- The Waltons, which aired on CBS in 1972-1981
- Apple´s Way, a CBS drama tv-series about a city family that moves to the country. It aired for two seasons in 1974-1975.
- The prime time television soap opera Falcon Crest, which aired on CBS in 1981-1990.
- Boone, a 1983-1984 NBC tv-series starring Tom Byrd as a young man who dreams of becoming a country music star.
Books by Earl Hamner Jr.
- Fifty Roads to Town (1953)
- Spencer’s Mountain (1961)
- You Can’t Get There from Here (1965)
- The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer’s Mountain (1970)
- Lassie: A Christmas Story (1997). Co-written with Don Sipes. It is a children’s picture book story with illustrations by Kevin Burke.
- Murder in Tinseltown (2000). Co-written with Don Sipes.
- The Avocado Drive Zoo (1999). A memoir.
- Good Night, John Boy (2002). Reminiscences of making The Waltons tv-series.
- Generous Women (2006). A collection of memoirs.