When meeting Eric Scott you know you're in the presence of royalty.
Not the arrogant kind, but the stuff of which true leadership is made: sincerity, humility, integrity, honesty, kindness – a template for humanity if there ever was one.
Best known for his earnest portrayal of Ben Walton on classic TV's iconic family show, The Waltons (CBS, 1972-1981; NBC, 1993-97), Eric is today a man for all seasons. Husband, father, Cub Scout leader and solid staple of his community, he presides over a family of three and a flourishing business - Chase Messengers, LLC – a parcel delivery service based in Encino, California which he owns and for which he decades ago first served as an assistant.
Following a brief union with actress Karey Louis, Eric met, fell in love with and married Theresa Fargo, the mother of his daughter Ashley, 19. Nine months into her pregnancy with Ashley, Theresa developed acute myelomonocytic leukemia to which she succumbed on November 5, 1992, only two days after Ashley's birth. In March 2001, Eric married Cindy Ullman Wolfen with whom he has a daughter, Emma, 10, born in 2001, and a son, Jeremy, 7, born in 2004.
Between the winning TV stardom he attained by way of The Waltons, the personal trauma of losing a young wife to a deadly disease, and the massive responsibilities that come along with guiding a family at home and employees at Chase, Eric retains a solid perspective on a life and career that he balances with faith, grace, style and ease.
Although his days of being Ben are long behind him, he still acts periodically and makes personal appearances at Walton events around the country, whether at the Waltons Museum in Schuyler (pronounced "Sky-ler"), Virginia, the birthplace of series creator Earl Hamner, or at the recent 40th Anniversary Screening in New Jersey of The Homecoming: A Christmas Story – the TV-movie that ignited the Waltons series.
For years millions of fans have worshipped The Waltons in any form. From the genius mind of literary giant Hamner, the show was based on his true-to-life experiences growing up during the Great Depression in Schuyler, a small company town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The genesis of the TV series commenced with his classic novel Spencer's Mountain, which in 1963 was adapted as a feature film starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara and James MacArthur (Hawaii Five-0, CBS, 1968 - 1980) as Clay-Boy, the precursor to John-Boy, as played so all-encompassing by Richard Thomas on The Waltons.
The big-screen Spencer's was a hit but a bit too peppy and bright. It somehow missed the mark as it glossed over Hamner's down-home down-sized realistic vision, which it later transmuted into as the more focused and clarified Homecoming TV-movie. Adjustably intimate and better suited for the small screen, the Spencer's-cum-Waltons-Homecoming TV-movie was originally conceived as only a Christmas special. When the ratings measured off the hook, CBS immediately ordered it to series.
Patricia O'Neal and Andrew Duggan stepped into the parental figures played by Fonda and O'Hara in Spencer's Mountain. They were then joined with Thomas, Judy Norton Taylor (as Mary Ellen Walton), Mary McDonough (Erin), Kami Colter (Elizabeth), Jon Walmsley (Jason) and David W. Harper (Jim-Bob). When the Homecoming TV-movie became the Waltons weekly series, Michael Learned and Ralph Waite took over for O'Neal and Duggan as parents John and Olivia Walton, Will Geer replaced Edgar Bergen (father of Candice Murphy Brown Bergen) as the Grandfather Zeb Walton, while Ellen Corby was retained as the Grandmother Esther Walton - as were all the young actors playing the children, the middle of who was the fresh-faced 12-year-old Eric Scott.
Scott's sparked freckles and bright-red hair caught the eye of Homecoming casting directors who believed that he, Thomas and the rest of their young thespian peers looked enough like a family to cast them as a group.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But The Waltons - the show and the cast, are used to making history. A superior production on every level, the program was real. Set in the Depression era of the late 1930s, it was blessed with premium talent, behind and in front of the camera in every aspect of production, from Emmy-winning performances delivered by Thomas, Learned, Waite, Geer and Corby, to the also-award-winning tender but crisp writing and directing. As Thomas recently said during a cast reunion on NBC's Today show, critics who coined the series too saccharine never invested a dime in actually watching it.
"It was funny," Eric Scott begins to explain, "because when we'd read certain reviews that said we were too schmaltzy or a little too sweet, we just never thought that was the case. I mean, there'd be scenes where John Walton (the father played by Waite) would lose his patience, and yell at the kids whether it was right or wrong. So, I disagreed with the critics back then."
As well he should have. Truth-be-told, the Walton characters did indeed interact on very legitimate terms. They laughed, cried and became angry with one another, as in any actual family. But at their core was the love that held them together with a happy steady strength in poor tough times.
With so solid a premise, it would be surprising for any associated actor, much less an alignment of young actors, to not walk away from such a creative environment without an indestructible moral structure.
But Eric Scott credits his strong sense of priorities to his parents, and not the Waltons scripts or his experience in working on the series. His father, Sumner Magat, who succumbed to a heart attack in 1976, was a hard-working hairstylist in Van Nuys, California; and his mother, Judy Magat, became his manager. Both were his true guiding lights.
"I did a lot of shows before The Waltons," he says, "where I was the only child on the set, or when there was maybe just one other child there. I had never worked with a group of kids like on The Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969-1974) or The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-74). I didn't know what it was like to be with other parents and other kids."
However, from the minute he stepped on the set of The Waltons, his mother committed to his career. As he recalls, she approached him and said, "I will quit my job and be there for you for as long as you are on the show."
Eric says Judy Magat received "the going rate" for someone who functioned as she did on the set. "We worked out an arrangement. And she kept me in line, which was not an easy thing to do with a young12-13-year-old boy. But she did an incredible job."
At the end of each Waltons day's work, in which his gentle Ben character was instructed by parents John and Olivia to do any assortment of chores, Eric would return to the Scott homestead where his real mother and father would instruct him to do the same. "I still had to go out and clean up after the dog, and to do all the things that were necessary in a regular family setting," he says.
Into this mix, his mother encouraged him to get a formal education. "She didn't feel that 'acting' was a career that I should be focusing on in my studies," he says. "That didn't mean that I shouldn't try and be a good actor," but while attending school on the Warner's lot (where The Waltons filmed), he worked diligently on his science and math courses, "and anything else that I was good at that would encourage me to go off to college."
Consequently, he attended Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley, from which he graduated in 1979 with a Business degree, again, all due to his parents' proper and general balance of priorities, and specifically, the on-set support that he received from his mother. "She definitely kept it real," he says. "And she watched out for the other kids, too. She became the set-mom for a lot of them because there were those who did not have that kind of consistency. Maybe their moms came down a little bit but they had babysitters. And that's part of it too."
Suffice it to say, Eric and his mother were a stabilizing force for the other young actors on The Waltons. "I had worked for four or five years beforehand," he intones, "so I understood that being on a show was serious business. There's time to play and then there's time not to play. So there was definitely a grounding that happened while being on the set that I felt that, yes - if I could influence others, I would."
An acting vet by the time he appeared in The Homecoming, Eric had performed in TV classics like Bewitched, in commercials such as those famous Hot Wheels spots for Mattel - which started circa 1967, and for which Keiyo Glenn served as the casting director. "That was one of my first jobs," he explains, "and Glenn was casting a significant number of commercials at that time."
But there was a snag in the process when it came to casting the young Master Scott in his first actual speaking role on film.
"Well, Eric," Glenn would tell him, "you need to be in the union."
To which he'd reply, forthrightly, "I can't be in the union until I get a job. So why don't you give me a job and then I'll be in the union and we won't have this conversation again."
"And she got me the job," Eric recalls today with a sly smile.
Subsequently, Glenn began casting Eric in a lot of jobs. "She saw that look I had and needed to cast it," specifically for the Hot Wheels Mattel commercials, of which he did several. "In fact," he explains, "I was the first boy that was actually cast in a doll commercial for Mattel."
He also worked as a model in print ads for companies like Bank of America – which was his first job – at a mere seven-years-old. "And from there," he says, "I started doing a little bit more of the episodic work in television."
Some of those TV appearances included guest-spots on The Interns (CBS, 1970-71), Medical Center (CBS, 1969-76), and The Young Rebels (NBC, 1970-71), amongst several other shows in the 1970s.
It all began when after his parents were frequently approached by friends and those in the industry who'd say, "He should be on TV. He's got the look."
"I heard that more than a few times," he says, "and it intrigued me, the idea of doing something like that."
"Basically," he goes on to reveal, "I grew up pretty much without anything. My dad struggled to make the house payments. My mom worked to keep us fed, and it wasn't easy. So I felt that acting would provide a good way to pay for college."
"I'd like to try that," he said of his theatrical aspiration.
The Scott (Magat) family then met with a few agents all of whom essentially responded in the same way: "Oh, Eric - you'd be great. Let's get some pictures of you," which the Scotts proceeded to do.
However, after a few months of "getting absolutely nowhere with them," Eric explains, "we'd contact them, and they'd say, 'Eric who?'"
But the lines of communication would soon change for the better as when, one day, a client of his father's hair salon noticed Eric's photo on the mirror. This particular client, whose name Eric does not recall, happened to live next door to theatrical agent Helen Bruce who owned Junior Artists Unlimited. The client asked for a copy of Eric's picture, which he promised to slide under Bruce's door at home.
Shortly thereafter, Bruce called to meet with Eric, who signed with Junior Artists on the spot, and was immediately sent on auditions. "She was a wonderful agent," Eric says of Bruce. "Whenever I received a call to meet a casting director, she would go with me. She was very devoted to my career, and definitely played an important role in jump-starting it."
If Helen Bruce jump-started Eric's career, then The Waltons ignited it.
With participation in that particularly famous TV family, he sensed something special was in creation, although no one envisioned the series would become so legendary in the vast landscape of TV history. "We all knew what we were making was quality," he says. "And I always felt that the production values of our show were very strong. We knew when we were making it that each episode was going to stand on its own. But we had no idea that it would be as timeless as it's become today."
The timeless appeal of The Waltons is attributed to many reasons. Firstly, each episode was as a little movie, with a beginning, middle and an end, unlike contemporary television shows that feature convoluted arc storylines or guest-characters that linger throughout the entire season.
"Today," Eric explains, "there is more a soap-opera mentality. But on The Waltons, we'd introduce a character and in 48 minutes of production, you got to know that character, and there would be resolution with that character."
Upon recently viewing a few episodes, Eric was "amazed," especially with performances by Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite and Michael Learned. "They were so strong, with regard to character development," he says. In their inter-acting with fellow cast members, Eric assesses, "Michael and Ralph listened so well," which is one of the most respectful gestures an actor could convey while working in a scene. "And Richard, of course," who played John-Boy, "was always a stunning person to be around."
As Eric recalls, Thomas took great strides to "care for us." If any of the younger Waltons cast members felt a particular line of dialogue was incongruent with their TV counterparts, Thomas would make certain the scripts were altered to maintain the integrity of each performance and the show in general. "If he felt there was a character flaw," Eric relays, "or if something wasn't progressing smoothly or was inconsistent with any character, he'd address it. He made sure that John-Boy and all the other characters were covered. I would talk with him, make suggestions about my character, and the script would be changed. In many ways, Richard really was our big brother," on and off-camera.
Thomas, as did Waite, had directed a few episodes and, according to Eric, "had that energy. He'd walk on the set and he'd have all these different ideas that he wanted to do. He was amazing. He would usually get a script a few days before the rest of us and when I say he worked on it, I mean he worked on it."
As Eric saw it, Thomas was "an actor's director, just like Ralph. He allowed the technical side to just flow, organically. And I cherished his insight. He was the driving force on our show, and he had an incredible influence on it. And when he had the opportunity to direct, he brought along the same kind of gusto. He had ideas and knew our characters as well as we did. Our characters were very much like each of our personalities, and he knew those personalities well. Because we had such a large cast, the producers recognized early who we were as individuals, and set out to incorporate traits from our real lives into our characters."
With Ben Walton, Eric's character, "they saw him as a little bit of a wise ass that could get into a little bit of trouble once in a while. But he also had a business sense. He was intelligent but emotional. And that was more or less taken from me," Eric admits with his refreshing trademark candor.
Although Thomas' the lead-character of John-Boy Walton - the alter-ego of the show's master-mind Earl Hamner – received top-billing, Eric is quick to point out, "We didn't have prima donnas on our show. We were a troupe all the way."
That team-spirit would most certainly include Hamner. "I had never worked with a producer/writer like we did with Earl," Eric relays. "It was like having an in-house writer on the set. Between him and Richard we all always felt that there was someone to talk to. They looked through each script (as if) with magnified glasses, every word was under the microscope." With this kind of patience in production the end result was a quality product, "and it showed."
Comparatively speaking, and in retrospect, each 48-minute Waltons episode equals approximately 15 minutes in production time today because, as Eric explains, "We took the time to develop characters, to let the characters and the actors find their way. Nowadays, it's all about quick-editing, and the seven-second approach to watching a show."
Another Waltons co-worker that served as somewhat of a mentor for Eric was Ellen Corby who played Grandma Walton, even after she suffered a stroke that disabled her speech. "All you had to do was look at those eyes of hers," Eric recalls, "and how she conveyed so much without even saying a word. She had that little bit of spicy energy, and she saw that same vim and vinegar in me, and she encouraged me to 'Go for it! Go out there and do it! Add to it.'"
In effect, the set of The Waltons provided a mutually support system that proved beneficial for the cast – as well as the home audience. As far as Eric can tell, the series was and remains popular for two main reasons:
(1) Viewer relate to it
(2) Viewers aspire to relate to it.
He explains: "When I talk to people that grew up watching it within my generation, I think they are connecting it back to the wonderful time they had growing up in the '60s and the '70s. So I think that nostalgia is probably part of the attraction now. And remember, too, because it was based in the 1930s, it was nostalgic even then (when it debuted in the '70s)."
"But, it's funny," he goes on to clarify, "because when we were doing the show, I didn't think about the effect it had on anything. We were just working. It was a production. I looked at it from an acting standpoint, or learned from it from a post-production standpoint. It was all very technical for me. I didn't look at it as entertaining, or consider if the public was enjoying it. I could never control any of that. And we would never change what we were doing to appease others. We just did what we felt was right for the show and with each script, and we honored that."
In turn, fans continue to honor the show.
"People approach me," Eric goes on to say, "and tell me of the impact that the show had on them growing up, how it changed their lives…that they raised their kids according to what they learned on the show…how they named their children after our characters. These are all like wonderful residuals for the effort and energy we put into doing the show. It's all love. It's a gift."
As a result of The Waltons popularity, additional one-hour family shows appeared
on television, including NBC's Little House on the Prairie (1974-83). Like The Waltons, Little House, which was produced by TV legend Michael Landon (of NBC's Bonanza/1959-73 and Highway to Heaven/1983-89), was a period piece, based on real life experiences, specifically those of Laura Ingalls and the memories she shared in monumental Prairie books.
"Michael Landon was brilliant," Eric intones. "I loved his work on Little House, Highway to Heaven and Bonanza. He really knew how to entertain." But despite the fact that House was set in the 1880s, Eric believes "some of the dialogue was very contemporary," and he respected Landon's choice to go that route. "But I don't feel the development of his characters had the same amount of layers that we did on The Waltons. His show was wonderful entertainment, and parents could sit down and watch it with their kids, who absolutely loved it. And for that it was great. But on The Waltons, I always felt we were making an adult show and that kids could enjoy it as well."
As when Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek appeared in a few episodes playing Sarah Simmons, a somewhat disgruntled friend of the Walton children. In one segment, it was suggested that her character was pregnant out of wedlock. "It was just two little lines," Eric intones, and such subtle references may or may not have been picked up on by a ten or twelve your old viewer. "But for adults, that was a commentary on the times. So, our show had a great deal of depth, and that was one of its strengths. The stories were just terrific."
Most of the stories, certainly in the early years of the series, stemmed from the creativity and real-life memories of Earl Hamner. Other scripts were ignited by the equally gifted minds of writers like John Furia, who had previously worked on shows like The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-65) and Kung Fu (ABC, 1972-75), the latter for which had shared sets for the 1973 feature film remake of Lost Horizon (on which the young Walton actors frequently played).
In direct opposition to what became the unwritten "no hugging/no learning" rule later set down by Seinfeld (NBC, 1990-1998), the Walton characters frequently embraced one another, literally and figuratively. The characters had issues with one another, but by the given episode's end-tag, those issues were resolved. Both the Waltons and their viewers were comforted and, as Eric sustains, "That's what TV shows are supposed to do. That's what life is supposed to do. We all lose our patience or perspective from time to time, and conflict arises. But as long as there is an apology that's appropriate, then great – that's what life is all about. I mean, we shouldn't all be on such pedestals that we can't be human."
The human condition is something of which Eric is all too familiar. In those challenging days after his wife Theresa passed away and before finding love again with new wife Cindy, Eric was a struggling single parent. The Waltons had ended its successful original run, and the acting roles were few and far between. He had experienced the highs of professional TV stardom and the trauma of personal tragedy. Had he not retained the moral fiber instilled in him by his loving-kind parents he might not have survived. Instead, he not only survived, but thrived, and through it all never once took anything or anyone for granted in his real-life or reel-life families.
"We all get how fortunate we are," Eric says of he and his Waltons co-stars. "We have each other as a second family. We were happy to be together on the show, and we enjoy getting together today" (as when Eric and Cindy recently stayed with Mary Erin Walton McDonough and her husband Don while appearing at a Waltons event).
In fact, in the astounding realm of Eric Scott, a manifold of families frequently gather in celebration. When Cindy came into his life, she too had recently lost a spouse. And while Eric remains close to Theresa's family, Cindy remains close to the family of her first husband. Each of their connective broods makes every effort to gather for holidays and any other day as much as they can. It's a life of quality, not unlike the treasured family existence that was portrayed on The Waltons from The Homecoming in 1971, to the weekly series from 1972 to 1981 through the TV-movie sequels of 1982, all of which aired on CBS.
Then, from 1993 to 1997, Eric and his Walton co-stars regrouped for a trilogy of TV movies for NBC, the first of which was A Waltons Thanksgiving Reunion. By the time this first film aired, Eric had lost Theresa to cancer and, as he says of he and his Walton co-stars, "a lot of things had happened in our lives. It was very different from when we were all together back in the 1970s. It was a very emotional time for me, personally, but it was also very emotional for all of us to look back at how our lives had progressed, and that we were now reunited with old friends. Each of us had gone through a great deal, some more than others. But we were there for each other…and everyone was certainly there for me."
Case in point: Eric and the cast received a lot of press for the Thanksgiving Reunion film, and made numerous appearances on talk shows to promote it. For one such appearance, Ralph Waite was unable to be there in person, but part-took in the event via telephone. Upon hearing Eric discuss the loss of Theresa, Waite was overcome with emotion, and whispered under his breath, "Bless his heart."
It was as if God was speaking through Waite, echoing the sentiment millions of home viewers were assuredly uttering to themselves. In the process, it seemed Eric's already-genial soul was furthered sweetened…with the strength to move on after tragedy, to journey forward in faith with a firm foundation of moral structure and character that had been instilled within him by his parents, a centering stabilizing force of light that continues on through his children; and which remains illuminated for the rest of us – each time we watch The Waltons.
"Bless his heart," indeed.
For more information about The Waltons.
To see a video of a recent reunion of The Waltons cast on the NBC's Today show, click here.
Herbie J Pilato is a Writer/Producer who has worked for Syfy, A&E, TLC, Bravo, The Discovery Channel, Universal, Warner Bros. and Sony. Herbie J is the author of a number of acclaimed TV tie-in books (The Bionic Book, Life Story - The Book of Life Goes On, The Bewitched Book, Bewitched Forever, The Kung Fu Book of Caine, The Kung Fu Book of Wisdom, and NBC & ME: My Life As A Page In A Book). Herbie J is also the Founder and Executive Director for The Classic TV Preservation Society (a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the gap between positive TV shows and education), the Creative Director for Erie Street Entertainment (a TV production company that is geared toward sci-fi/fantasy, and family-oriented material), and appears frequently on TV in shows, like the TV Guide Channel's new series, 100 Moments That Changed TV (now airing every Sunday night in October). For more information, please log on to www.ClassicTVPS.blogspot.com or www.ErieStreetEntertainment.blogspot.com, or contact Herbie J directly via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read all Herbie J's MediaBizBloggers commentaries at Herbie J's Classic TV Corner.
Check us out on Facebook at MediaBizBloggers.com
Follow our Twitter updates @MediaBizBlogger
The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaBizBloggers.com management or associated bloggers. MediaBizBloggers is an open thought leadership platform and readers may share their comments and opinions in response to all commentaries.