Birthplace: Racine, WI
You Know Her As: Grandma Walton on the TV series, “The Waltons.”
Did you know?: Ellen Corby was the only adult actor appearing in “The Homecoming” who carried her role over to “The Waltons” series. All of the children stayed the same from the original “The Homecoming” movie, which became “The Waltons” series.
On June 3, 1911, Ellen Hansen was born to two Danish immigrants in Racine. Though born in the Midwest, she spent her childhood and adolescence in Philadelphia. She stayed there until 1932, when she left to join the entertainment industry at the age of 21.
After a brief stint as a chorus girl in Atlantic City, Hansen left for Hollywood. She was hired first at RKO and then at Hal Roach studios as a Script Assistant (one who looks after the continuity of the script). Hansen had grown close to her mother, Dagmar, after the death of her father, so it was no surprise that Dagmar followed Hansen to Hollywood and was even hired at the same studio as a cook.
Also at Hal Roach studios, there was one Francis Corby, cinematographer by trade. Through work, Ellen and Francis met and quickly became close; they were married soon after Hansen began working in 1934. However, their marriage only lasted 10 years before ending in divorce.
After they went their separate ways, Ellen chose to retain Francis’ name professionally. Her mother, instead of any man, was to be her closest and dearest friend until her passing in 1963.
“A great deal of me disappeared with her,” says Corby on the website www.thewaltons.com. “She was a large part of my life-much more than my husband ever was.”
During the day, Corby was a script assistant, and in the evening she was an acting student at The Actor’s Lab in Hollywood. With her day job, Corby began appearing in bit/uncredited roles. After a few dozen such parts, she switched to acting full-time and managed to land the role of “Aunt Trina” in “I Remember Mama” (1948), which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. While she did not win, she did feel the glow of the spotlight.
Corby went on to do such films as “Shane” (1953), “Sabrina” (1954) and “Vertigo” (1958). But the film industry is not where Corby earned her fame- it was in television.
Beginning in 1950 and ending in 1997, her TV career involved over 100 appearances. She performed on such popular shows as “Dragnet,” “I love Lucy,” “Bonanza,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Hawaii-Five-O” and “Adam 12.” Corby was often character-cast as an old woman, many times as a busybody. She worked on several different Western TV shows, which earned her a Golden Boot award from the Motion Picture and TV Fund in 1989.
Of all the work she did in her 64 years of TV and film, her quintessential role was that of “Esther ‘Grandma’ Walton” on the NBC TV series, “The Waltons,” which ran from 1972-81. Oddly enough, the pilot for this show came in the made-for-TV movie, “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” (1971). The show took place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression. The Walton home was inhabited by three generations of the Walton Family, including Grandpa Zeb, Grandma Esther, their married son John and his wife Olivia, and their children John Boy, Mary Ellen, Jim-Bob, Elizabeth, Jason, Erin and Ben. This tight-knit family is followed through the hard times of life- such as the Depression- as well as the good times in life- with marriages and birth.
“The Homecoming” proved to be popular enough that the series was able to be developed soon after. Ellen Corby’s much-celebrated role as “Grandma Walton” garnered her Emmy Awards in 1973, ‘74 and ‘75 as well as a Golden Globe in ‘74.
She became such a large part of the show that after a serious stroke in 1977, the writers kept her in the storyline and wrote the stroke into the script. After recovering, Corby was able to make a few more appearances on the show before it was canceled. Despite her impaired speech, she still managed to become “Grandma Walton” again for made-for-TV Walton reunion movies in 1982, ‘93, ‘95 and ‘97. Two years after the last movie was broadcast, Ellen Corby passed away from natural causes at the age of 87, in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. The memory of Ellen Corby will live on in the hearts and minds of those who grew up with her as “Grandma Walton”- and her dedication as an actress will carry on through the years with the sales of her films and TV shows.
Biography by Katie Doucet