Sure people talk. But it doesn’t bother us. We love each other and that’s what counts.”
Such homespun sentiment is worthy of Olivia Walton, but the relationship defended here is actress Michael Learned’s own. Her man is William Parker, an ex-actor, part-time taxi driver and struggling writer who, at 30, is eight years her junior. Given their age difference (“I worry about it only when I project into the future,” she says), her overwhelming TV popularity and her three almost-grown sons from the first of two marriages, Michael and Will each day face more emotional peril than ever visited Waltons’ Mountain.
“Will said one time that if my success became a problem it was his problem,” explains Learned. Will adds, “I’m in love with the woman, not somebody known to people on television. I think I have a strong enough image of my own self-worth so it’s not a problem.”
They met six years ago playing Antony and Cleopatra in San Diego summer stock but remained only pen pals until Will telephoned last fall. Michael’s two-year second marriage to Glenn Chadwick, a master theater carpenter, was breaking up and “the last thing I wanted was another relationship. I was prepared to live alone for the rest of my life. When we decided we were more than friends, I was scared. But I decided the most important thing was Will and me.”
The bloom hasn’t faded in the six months since Will moved into her three-story, tree-shaded Hollywood home. Michael’s three sons (Caleb, 19, a carpenter; Christopher, 17, an aspiring drummer; and Lucas, 14, who’s still in high school) live with them, though the two oldest have their own separate quarters on the property. Will is careful not to play father or even big brother. “I just enjoy them, that’s all.” “He’s open to them and they’re open to him,” Michael agrees.
Will, who has played Shakespeare to Shaw on the summer stock and repertory circuit, is currently making the difficult transition from actor to writer. “I love acting but sort of gravitated away from it in Los Angeles,” he says. “I made the rounds and got nowhere. There was a gradual disenchantment. I had a natural facility for writing and found it more rewarding than acting.” So far Parker’s scripts and TV pilots remain unpurchased. (“They have me on hold,” he suggests hopefully.) Meanwhile he continues to drive a cab part-time (usually nights) out of nearby Culver City. “It’s been an education I couldn’t get in school,” he muses. “There is a whole other reality out there on the streets I was not exposed to, growing up in a protected, suburban environment.”
Born in San Francisco, Will was raised an only child in Kingston, N.Y. by his mother and stepfather, a real estate investor. (He met his natural father, a marketing executive, only five years ago and since has become friendly with four half brothers and sisters.) After almost three years as a frustrated math and science major at Hobart College, he transferred to Hudson Valley Community College, appeared in a play and decided the theater was for him. He switched to Ithaca College for his BFA and did graduate work in drama in San Diego.
Michael, who was born in Washington, D.C., says her parents never explained why she was given a boy’s name (except that they had a thing for strange names—Michael has a Sabra and a Dorit as sisters and a half brother christened Tarquin). Her father, an ex-Army officer, was a gentleman farmer and newspaper editor in Connecticut before being posted in 1950 to the U.S. embassy in Austria as a civilian Army employee. “I was enrolled in a village school near Salzburg, although I didn’t speak a word of German,” Michael recalls. “For a long time I resisted seeing The Sound of Music, but when I finally did I cried. We really did sit on hillsides making daisy chains and singing.” Next came two and a half “horrible” years in an English boarding school in Hertfordshire. (“I don’t even talk about my schooling. Will is explaining algebra to me.”)
She did, however, discover Macbeth and acting. At 16 she apprenticed at Connecticut’s Shakespeare Festival, where she fell in love with actor Peter Donat, then 28. “My parents thought he was too old and sent me back to England. Ten months later I returned and we were married.” Before her 20th birthday she had two babies. “We were making $80 a week between us,” she remembers of those struggling off-Broadway days. She and Donat escaped to Canadian TV and in 1965 to San Francisco and the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT).
“I thought to be a woman meant being a superwoman, that you could work but nobody should know it,” Michael reflects. “I used to pride myself on the fact that I kept a house running and never burdened anybody. But I hated the world. I still feel resentment. This was not imposed on me by Peter or anyone else. It was my own equation.” When friends urged her to see a psychiatrist, “I’d answer, ‘Why me? I’m not suicidal. My house is clean, meals on the table, fire going, fresh flowers everywhere.’ But that was on the outside. It’s taken me until now even to talk about it, and that was a good chunk out of my life.” (She finally saw a therapist then and still sees one.)
Her marriage to Donat collapsed, and in “bad shape” she drove to L.A., almost broke, checking into a motel amid Hollywood’s massage parlors, “where a tenant got mugged every other night.” Michael expected to return to San Francisco for an ACT tour, but in the meantime she tested for The Waltons. “I felt like the biggest fool,” she remembers. “I didn’t understand a word the director said to me. When my agent called to say I got the part, I dropped the phone and jumped up and down and screamed.”
After five seasons and three Emmys for her sensitive portrayal of Olivia Walton (the role, she says, “saved my life”), Learned may be trying to reestablish herself off-TV. (The Waltons is a ratings gamble now that Richard [John-Boy] Thomas has left the show.) In June she returned to San Francisco for an unconventional one-woman drama, Miss Margarida’s Way, in which she bared her legs and cursed a lot. Later this month Learned is planning a cameo appearance as Marlon Brando’s wife in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
“I realize there are no guarantees in life, even though I’m happier now than I’ve ever been,” she ruminates. “With Will, there is a deep sharing like I’ve never felt before. I used to love people for what they could be. I thought love was how hard you tried and how much you sacrificed and suffered. That is not love,” she says. “Acceptance is.”