Without a doubt, “The Waltons” (weekdays at 5pm ET/2pm PT) remains one of the greatest, most beloved, and influential family series to ever grace our television screens. From the age of six to 16, Kami Cotler starred as Elizabeth Walton, the youngest child of the family.
After acting in “The Waltons” and its subsequent TV movies, Cotler moved away from the entertainment industry, instead choosing to focus on the education of herself and others. Currently, Cotler is Acting Principal at ECMS-Gardena and the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Environmental Charter Schools.
In this interview with VisionTV.ca, Cotler reflects on the memorable experiences and lessons she learned while starring in “The Waltons,” as well as her passion for working in the school system.
Q: You first started on “The Waltons” at the age of six. What is it like for someone that young to be working in television?
Kami: “For me it was very positive. I was lucky to be on ‘The Waltons’ set. The adult actors and production staff established a friendly and professional working environment. Being one of many child actors ensured there was always someone to hang out with. I think I was lucky to be the baby, so there were many people to look out for me.
“I had the right temperament to work as a kid; I was naturally curious and self possessed. I really enjoyed the rhythm of working on a series, getting makeup, rehearsing, dropping into school while they set up, and filming. I liked the variety and the collaboration. Every week there was a new guest star to meet. Sometimes there were animals or fun props. To me, it was a big playground with lots of playmates. We were all working towards creating a story together.”
“The Waltons” can be seen daily at 5pm ET/2pm PT on VisionTV!
Q: Spending a good chunk of your youth on the series must’ve been a very unique experience. What were the best and worst parts about that?
Kami: “The best part was meeting people from all different backgrounds and experiences – both cast and crew. The harder part was transitioning back to school each spring and having to be cautious about new people…were they really seeing me as me, or just thinking about Elizabeth?”
Q: While in “The Waltons,” were you able to accurately grasp the popularity the series was achieving? If so, how’d that make you feel?
Kami: “No. I was too young to understand the scale. When you are little, you tend to just accept your experience as normal. There was a time when we had to stop going to amusement parks, because getting recognized could result in too big a crowd to manage. But, I don’t remember feeling like it was an unreasonable burden. It was just how it was.”
Q: What were some of the most impactful off-screen moments you had with your TV parents Ralph Waite and Michael Learned?
Kami: “Oh gosh. Michael is one of the most sensitive and caring people I know. She was always warm to all of the kids. My own Mom is amazing, but she’s very sensible and grounded. I could go to Michael with more dramatic feelings and she’d be a great listener and support. Funnily enough, some of the more impactful memories of Ralph were on screen. There was an episode where Elizabeth is going to a dance and when she comes downstairs, daddy dances a waltz with her. It turned out Ralph was an amazing dancer. I had no idea how magical waltzing could be until that moment. Watching it brought Michael to tears, because her own father used to dance with her like that.”
Q: Which life lessons did you take away from your time on “The Waltons,” and continue to apply in your adult life?
Kami: “I think appreciating difference. If I hadn’t been on the show, I would have been raised in a middle class Los Angeles suburb and rarely interact with anyone different than myself. Because of actors and crew I met on the show, my world was vastly expanded. Meeting fans also enabled me to interact with a wide range of folks. It helped me understand how we can be different, and still be good people.”
Q: To date, “The Waltons” still has a tremendous fan base. What do you credit the series’ staying power and continual influence to?
Kami: “I think the show presented things that were universal to the human experience – family, struggle, love of nature. I think the real relationships and caring that we experienced making the show shone through to the audience and made it a more authentic experience.”
Q: What is your favourite story/memory from the time you spent on “The Waltons”?
Kami: “Superlatives are impossible. There are many favorite moments and memories. Any time we had a special event or special effect on the show. Falling off a bridge, swimming with beavers, listening to Will Geer tell stories, using Warner Brothers’ back lot as my own personal playground…many things.”
Q: How would you describe your current relationship with those who also starred on the show?
Kami: “They are a second family. We see each other for family events, like Bar Mitzvahs, or weddings, or funerals. Whenever we get together it’s like a family reunion.”
Q: You stepped away from acting after “The Waltons” series and the subsequent TV movies. Why did you decide to do that?
Kami: “It was a natural transition for me. I was ready to go to college and didn’t plan to study acting. Having done it for so many years with no training, I had no appreciation for what the training might be, and I was interested in studying history and literature.
“My acting experience had been very unusual – most actors audition most of the time and work rarely.As I began auditioning, I realized that it wasn’t as enjoyable as working! There wasn’t much time between when the show ended and I started university. But, most of the things I auditioned for were not well written and I wasn’t terribly eager to get those jobs. At the same time, I was put off by how precious everyone else thought these jobs were. And I was a teen by then, so the auditioning dynamic was different. I figured I was entitled to a break, since I’d spent every summer vacation [from the age of] six to 16 working on ‘The Waltons’”
Q: We see that you’re now heavily engaged in the education system. What motivated you to take that career path?
Kami: “I chose teaching at first because it offered an opportunity to learn more about American culture. I could teach in different regions… and I did. I taught in Oakland and San Francisco. Rural Virginia and San Diego. Teaching seemed more important than acting, but it also had some similarity with acting – a school faculty and staff operates like a cast and crew. It’s never boring. It keeps you on your toes, and teaching has moments of performance. I was also lucky to have a terrific K-12 education, both on and off set, so I was motivated to make that available to more students. That’s how I ended up in charter schools and helping open and lead them.”
Q: These days, what excites you the most about life?
Kami: “Seeing the amazing work my colleagues at Environmental Charter Schools do! Also, the promise of our students excites me, [as does] watching my own family grow and learn.”
“The Waltons” can be seen daily at 5pm ET/2pm PT on VisionTV!