A half-century ago, CBS released a TV movie called “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.” The wholesome, family-oriented film did so well it was turned into a series called “The Waltons” in 1972.
The drama, which turned Richard Thomas (John-Boy) into a major star, became a huge hit, lasting nine seasons and 221 episodes, spawning six more films through 1997 after its cancellation in 1981.
Now for the first time in nearly a quarter century, “The Waltons” are back in a redo of that 1971 film. Dubbed “The Waltons: Homecoming,” the CW will air the movie twice, the first time on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET and again on Dec. 11.
The plot is simple. Set in Depression-era rural Virginia in 1933, the Waltons are a struggling family of ma, pa and seven kids. The mill near their home shut down and John Walton (Ben Lawson) had to work 90 miles away at another mill to feed the family. The film focuses on his efforts to get home in time for Christmas ahead of a pending snowstorm.
The new version retains the sweetness and heart of the original series. Any arguments and conflicts are mild and resolved by film’s end. There is plenty of laughter, warmth and understanding spanning generations.
“We could never have predicted what was going to happen to this country as a result of the pandemic,” said Sam Haskell, the film’s executive producer who recently won an Emmy for his inspiring Netflix musical “Christmas on the Square” a year ago starring Dolly Parton. “I believe people looked inside themselves and rediscovered family. What I’m trying to do with the Waltons is not only bring back the parents and grandparents who know the show but have the kids come to the TV set and watch this movie as well.”
For Haskell, who was a teen when “The Waltons” debuted, the show has special resonance. “I remember Thursday nights, we’d hear the theme song and rush into the living room to watch. It was an amazing mainstay in my life and I’m incredibly honored Warner Brothers partnered with me to do something so wonderful. I’m just so grateful.”
This film is a departure for the current incarnation of the CW, which mostly gears itself to younger viewers with fare like “Riverdale” and “The Flash.”
Director Lev Spiro, better known for edgier shows like “Arrested Development” and “Weeds,” was drawn to the ideals of the script: “This gives me an opportunity to put something out I see as possessing humanistic values. We want to worm into viewers’ subconscious that maybe the world can be a better place if we treat each other with respect, empathy and tolerance.”
Haskell cast two of the bigger names in the cast because they were personal friends: “Scandal” star Bellamy Young (Olivia Walton) and Lawson (John Walton), who was part of Haskell’s Netflix show “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.” He saw Logan Shroyer on “This is Us” and nabbed him to play the key role of aspiring writer and eldest son John-Boy.
Haskell said by pure coincidence, he later found out Shroyer was close friends with the grandson of Thomas, the original John-Boy. “Six degrees of separation became two degrees of separation,” Haskell said. “They had even met before.”
He also convinced now 70-year-old Thomas to return as the narrator and open the movie.
Actor Christian Finlayson, who plays the second eldest son and wannabe musician Jason, said the camaraderie you see on the screen is authentic.
“In the couple of weeks of production, we really became that family,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to pretend on camera to be one.”
Not to say he was all that familiar with the franchise, which hasn’t exactly translated to a new generation. After hearing about the audition, his mom told him about the show and he realized the “Family Guy” joke reference about “Goodnight John-Boy” he heard once came from this particular show.
Due to budgetary and time constraints, Haskell said they modified the ending of the movie from the original in a way that led the Walton family to celebrate Christmas at a Black church. Olivia’s friend, played by R&B singer and former “Solid Gold” host Marilyn McCoo as the preacher’s wife, invites her to her church for Christmas.
“Seeing white and Black hands clasping, this is the way it should be,” Haskell said. “It is the way it needs to be.”
This also led to a scene where Olivia has to gingerly explain to her youngest daughter why the churches are segregated. Young told Haskell she wanted to add a line to emphasize that all people are welcome in God’s house. “We rewrote it,” Haskell said. “It made it better. It made it much better.”
They also cast a Black cop in 1933 in Virginia. Spiro said they did research and found out Blacks didn’t get hired as cops in the state until the 1940s. “It’s a little bit of a stretch but it’s within the realm of believability,” he said.
The entire film is set during Christmas time with snow everywhere. The reality of shooting this past summer in Atlanta was far different, with high temperatures typically in the 80s and 90s.
Spiro had to remind the actors about proper body language, to hunch their bodies and shiver as if they were cold.
“We wore thick wool coats,” Finlayson said. “It was very, very hot. But I did do a scene with John-Boy where we get into a snowball fight and he rubs snow in my face. That was refreshing!”
Haskell, who has now filmed five wintry movies in the Georgia summer heat including NBC’s 2015 “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors” and 2016′s “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors,” said he now knows how to artfully blend snow mats, potato flakes, paper flakes and shaved ice as well as CGI from Atlanta’s Crafty Apes to make the films look convincingly chilly.
And to keep the actors in this film from collapsing from heatstroke, he had them wear special bodysuits with inserts to place ice packets under their winter coats.
Haskell is not shy about saying he hopes to replicate history if the film does well: “I’m trying to plant seeds of a TV series, something we can share with the world for years to come.”
The Waltons: Homecoming,” 8 p.m. ET Sunday on the CW, available the next day on the CW app and cwtv.com.
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