The actress Michael Learned (b. 1939) is chiefly known for her role as the matriarch Olivia Walton in the tv-series The Waltons. For her performance on the show, she was awarded with the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series three times. He resume also includes a fourth of these awards, which she got for her work with the 1981-1982 CBS medical drama show Nurse, in which she starred.

Michael Learned was also nominated for four Golden Globe Awards for her role has Olivia Walton.

Note: In the 1971 made-for-TV film “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story”, the character Olivia Walton is not played by Learned. Except for the Walton children and Grandma Esther Walton, all the characters were recast for the TV-series that followed the movie.


Michael Learned was born in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 1939.

She was the eldest of six children born to Elizabeth Duane “Betti” (née Hooper) and Bruce Learned. All the children were girls: Michael, Gretl, Susan, Sabra, Dorit and Philippa. Learned said in later interviews that her parents never explained why she was given a masculine first name. Her father told her that if she had been a boy, she would have been named Caleb.

Bruce Learned was a diplomat, and Michael´s maternal grandfather was an attaché for the United States Embassy in Rome.

Until she was 10 years old, Michael lived on a farm in Connecticut. Then, the family moved to Austria, where the father worked for the U.S. State Department.

Michael discovered her love for acting while enrolled at the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire, England. (Today it is known as the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts.)

Acting career

Early stage experience

In the late 1960s, Learned and her then-husband Peter Donat appeared in various roles with the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, USA.

The Waltons

Prior to being cast as Olivia Walton, Michael Learned had not done any substantial acting in either film or television, but her performance as the matriarch of the Walton family earned her a lot of praise.

After the end of the sixth season of The Waltons, Learned agreed to come back for one more season on the condition that she would not have to work for the full nine months of shooting. When Learned left the show after the seventh season, the script writers gave her character Olivia Walton tuberculosis and sent her off to a sanatorium in Arizona to explain her absence. Since the character had not been killed off, Learned returned for various guest appearances until the show ended after its ninth season, and she also appeared in four of the six Waltons reunion movies that aired in the 1980s and 1990s.


In 1974, while still doing The Waltons, Learned appeared in the made-for-TV disaster movie “Hurricane” alongside Will Green – the actor who played Oliva Walton´s father-in-law Zebulon Walton on the show.


Michael Learned starred as Nurse Mary Benjamin in the medical drama Nurse, which ran on CBS for two seasons (a total of 25 episodes) in 1981-1982.

The show was well recieved critically, and Learned earned an Emmy for her role, but the show was not a rating success and CBS cancelled it after the second season.

Examples of later TV-work

Learned starred in two short-lived tv-shows aird by ABC in the late 1980s: The 1988 medical drama Hothouse and the 1989 sitcome Living Dolls.

In 2005, she appeared as Judge Helen Turner in the ABC soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” during the cross-over baby-switch storyline that involved both shows.

During the second season of the Nickelodeon teen drama “The Secret World of Alex Mack”, Learned played a ghost – the dead grandmother of the show´s main villain.

Returning to the world of medical tv-shows, Learned guest-starred as Mrs. Wilk in five episodes of Scrubs during the show´s fifth season, and then played Shirley Smith on General Hospital.

When The Young and the Restless veteran Jeanne Cooper had to take a medical leave in October 2011, Learned filled in for her as Katherine Chancellor.

Exampels of later stage work

As mentioned above, Learned was a stage actor before being cast for The Waltons, and she would later return to the stage numerous times, including on Broadway, off Broadway, and elsewhere. She did for instance join the cast of a national touring production of On Golden Pond in 2006-2007, and in the fall of 2008 she played the title role of Daisy Werthen in Innovation Theatre Works’ production of Driving Miss Daisy.


  • For seasons 1-5 of The Waltons, Michael Learned was billed as Miss Michael Learned as the producers did not want viewers to be confused about her gender. By the sixth season, the billing was changed to just Michael Learned as she was now such a well-known actor.
  • Learned as won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series four times, which makes her tied for the record of most wins with Tyne Daly.  (Tyne Daly have six Emmy awards, but two of them are for supporting actress.)

Personal life

Learned married her first husband, the Canadian-American actor Peter Donat (b. 1928), when she was just 17 years old. They remain married for 16 years before divorcing in 1972. Together, they had the sons Caleb, Christopher and Lucas.

In 1974, Learned married Glenn Chadwick, but the couple divorced just three years later. Learned was then married to the actor-screenwriter William Parker IV in 1979-1988. After that divorce, she married the lawyer John Doherty in 1988 and they have stayed together ever since. The couple lives in California.


In a 2002 article published in the religious publication Daily Word, Learned revealed that at age 32, she realized she was an alcoholic. She spent some time in Peter Donat´s cabin on the California coast and decided to become sober. In the article, she also shared that this was the start of a spiritual journey for her, and that she has been sober since 1977.

Which of the made-for-TV movies about The Waltons is Michael Learnd in?


Mother’s Day on Waltons Mountain


A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion


A Walton Wedding


A Walton Easter



Year Title Role Notes
1980 Touched by Love Dr. Bell
1986 Power Governor Andrea Stannard
1993 Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story Vivian Emery
1997 Life During Wartime
2000 For the Love of May Mary Lou Short film
2005 Lethal Eviction Elsa
Loggerheads Sheridan Bellamy
2007 The Killer The Innkeeper Short film
2009 An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong Nana Louis Hanlon
2014 Unplugged Grandma Katie Short film
The Parcel Beverly
After Life Gloria
2018 Second Acts Lee Marston Short film

Made-for-TV movies

Year Title Role
1963 The Other Man N/A
1974 Hurricane Lee Jackson
It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy Janet Walters
1978 Little Mo Eleanor Tennant
1980 Nurse Mary Benjamin
A Christmas Without Snow Zoe Jenson
1982 Mother’s Day on Waltons Mountain Olivia Walton
1984 The Parade Rachel Kirby
1986 A Deadly Business Ann
Picnic Rosemary Sidney
1987 Mercy or Murder? Skipper
1988 Roots: The Gift Amelia Parker
1990 Gunsmoke: The Last Apache Mike Yardner
1991 Aftermath: A Test of Love Irene
Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story Judy Smart
Keeping Secrets Marion Mahoney
1992 Mattie’s Waltz Mattie
1993 A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion Olivia Walton
1995 A Walton Wedding
1997 A Walton Easter
1998 A Father for Brittany Edna Humphreys

Television series

Year Title Role Notes
1968 Wojeck Nina Eden 2 episodes
1972–1979 The Waltons Olivia Walton 168 episodes
1973 Gunsmoke Mike Yardner Episode: “Matt’s Love Story”
Gunsmoke May Lassiter Episode: “A Game of Death… An Act of Love Part 2”
Match Game 73 Herself Episode: “1.6”
1973–1974 Insight Sister Janet 2 episodes
1974 Police Story Linda Keitlinger Episode: “Love, Mabel”
1981–1982 Nurse Nurse Mary Benjamin 25 episodes
1984 St. Elsewhere Sister Millicent Domencia 2 episodes
1988 Hothouse Dr. Marie Teller 7 episodes
1989 Murder, She Wrote Maria Hudson Episode: “Trevor Hudson’s Legacy”
Who’s the Boss? Trish Carlin 2 episodes
Living Dolls Trish Carlin 12 episodes
1990 Wiseguy Rachel 2 episodes
1994 Reading Rainbow Herself Episode: “Appelemondo’s Dream”
1995 The Secret World of Alex Mack Ghost of Paradise Valley Episode: “The Secret”
1998 Profiler Helen Waters 3 episodes
Promised Land Dolly Carstens Episode: “The Secret of Bluestem”
2000 Pensacola: Wings of Gold Congresswoman Benedict Episode: “Article 32”
So Graham Norton Herself Episode: “3.8”
2003 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Candace Lamery Episode: “Privilege”
2005 All My Children Judge Turner Episode: “1.9044”
One Life to Live Hon. Judge Turner 2 episodes
2006 Scrubs Mrs. Wilk 7 episodes
2009 Cold Case Louise Patterson ’09 Episode: “WASP”
2010 General Hospital Shirley Smith 21 episodes
2011 Mr. Sunshine Maggie Episode: “The Best Man”
The Young and the Restless Katherine Chancellor 13 episodes