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Old 07-17-2010, 12:32 AM   #1
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Thumbs up 'Olivia Walton' a Real Daisy

Michael Learned is very much at home in Driving Miss Daisy as she was playing the matriarch on Walton’s Mountain

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You can’t help but see Olivia Walton in looks and deeds when you meet actor Michael Learned.

The compassionate, hardworking and beloved mother in the popular television series, The Waltons, is seen in the soft eyes of Learned, who played the role for eight seasons, and in the actor’s poise and kindness.

The seven children Walton raised on TV aren’t unlike Learned’s three children and five grandchildren.

And as she prepares for her role as Miss Daisy for the fifth time in Driving Miss Daisy, which opens Saturday at the Starbright Summer Festival in Sarnia, Learned, a four-time Emmy Award winner, says art imitates life.

It seems she’ll never tire of Driving Miss Daisy as it reminds her of a beloved African-American man from her childhood.

“I love this play. It’s my grandmother and Ambrose Lewis, who was her ‘chauffeur,’ ” Learned recalls.

Her grandmother lived in Stanford, Conn., and Lewis was her aide and confidante.

“He and my grandmother had this incredible relationship where he was the only one who dared talk back to her. His relationship with my grandmother was very much Hoke (the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy). He stood up to her and yet he worshipped her.”

Learned, the eldest of five girls, said her family also loved Lewis.

“He was the most stable, wonderful person in our childhoods. The whole family, we just worshipped him. It was back before civil rights. He was the kind of man who could turn somebody around just by who he was.”

In a recent wide-ranging interview, Learned talks about everything from her thumbs being too big to text easily to the humidity in Southwestern Ontario, which she enjoys.

Her Rat Terrier, coincidentally named Daisy, which she rescued from a shelter, sits on her lap for part of the time.

Learned is easy to talk to and friendly.

Now a California resident, where she lives with her attorney husband John Doherty, Learned will be in Sarnia for most of the summer and then she heads to Meaford for another Driving Miss Daisy production.

At 71, Learned is still a beauty to behold. Her blond hair in a stylish cut accents those blue eyes and she looks regal in white jeans and a green, blue and red plaid blouse.

She checks on Daisy, who is now exploring a London yard, and then talks more about Lewis.

He drove her to the hospital when she was in labour with her first child and he was the first person to arrive at the police station after Learned ran away.

Learned estimates she was about nine when she landed in the station. Her family was visiting her grandmother and her mother scolded her for something she hadn’t done.

“Being the dramatic child that I was, I said, ‘Tell mother, I’m going home,’ she says. She then walked away.

“I thought they were going to come along and I would have made my statement,’” she says.

“They never came. What had happened was I’d gotten further than they thought I could have gone, so they turned back. The cops were looking for me. I had walked about 10 miles. A cop car pulled up. They weren’t nice at all.

“They took me back to the station and Ambrose was the first one to come through the door. I was so happy to see him.”

Quite an adventure for a young girl and it confirmed the love she felt for Lewis.

A major love of Learned’s is *theatre and she is highly connected in the theatre world. She enjoys the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where she and first husband Peter Donat spent time on the boards and made great friends. One is Christopher Plummer, whom she plans to visit while in the area.

Plummer gave his daughter Amanda her second name of Michael, after Learned.

“He told me he thought I was so feminine that he wanted to name his daughter Amanda Michael,” she says.

The confusion over her name is something she’s used to addressing and does so drolly.

“Frankly I think my parents had had a few martinis. My father said, ‘Had you been a boy, we were going to name you Caleb, but as you were a girl, we decided to name you Michael.’ Go figure.”

That Learned became an actor was a surprise to her family, even to her.

At 12, she was sent to an arts school in England because she was going through pre-teen angst. “I was crying all the time,” she recalls.

As she loved to dance, her mother found a school with an emphasis on ballet.

“Once I was there they said, You’re not really a very good dancer.’”

She was involved in a production and ended up winning the drama cup.

“‘They said . . . ‘Why don’t you focus on acting.’”

Learned has had numerous roles in film, theatre and television and appeared on more than a dozen General Hospital episodes this year as Shirley Smith.

These days, most of her satisfaction comes from the stage.

“I love the money in television, but I love being in the theatre. To me theatre is a very spiritual experience. It’s scarier, but I’m more comfortable. I always feel it’s where I belong.”

Learned still keeps in touch with all of her television children and said they were close during the Walton years.

“I think that was part of the charm of the show. We were very supportive of each other.”

She said spending 19 hours a day on set wasn’t unusual. The children worked 10-hour days.

“They spent more time with me and (TV husband) Ralph (Waite) than they did their own parents.”

Learned also stays as connected as possible with her grandchildren, who will be coming to see the Starbright production.

Starbright artistic director David Hogan is thrilled to have Learned in the company and is pleased with the experience she brings to the role.

He said Daisy is a tough part to play.

“It’s a big part and it’s tricky. This person has to have the words in her noggin. It can be completely intimidating if you’re never done it before. We knew Michael played it before so . . . we started searching for her agent.”
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Old 07-17-2010, 12:52 AM   #2
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I always thought Michael Learned was fabulous as Olivia Walton. I'm glad to know she is still working and that she is happy.
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