Hamner was born on July 10, 1923, in Nelson County. His parents, Doris Giannini Hamner and Earl Henry Hamner, had seven more children after him, all redheads: Clifton, Marion, Audrey, Paul, Willard, James, and Nancy. Hamner’s father worked in a soapstone mill until it closed in the 1930s, after which he was hired at the DuPont chemical plant in Waynesboro. Although the family was quite poor, Hamner describes it as having been a happy, close-knit group.
Hamner was six years old when he published his first poem on the Children’s Page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. After graduating from Schuyler High School in 1940, he received a scholarship to the University of Richmond but didn’t complete his studies before joining the Army in 1943. After completing his military service during World War II, Hamner returned to Virginia, landing a job with WMBG, a country music radio station in Richmond. He soon left, however, first to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and then the University of Cincinnati, where he studied radio. Hamner graduated in 1948 and wrote briefly for radio station WLW in Cincinnati before moving to New York in 1949. His replacement at WLW was Rod Serling, who would go on to create television’s The Twilight Zone. During this time Hamner began writing his first novel, Fifty Roads to Town (1953), about a young woman living in the Virginia mountains who yearns to speak in tongues. In contrast to the feel-good The Waltons, Fifty Roads to Town portrays a darker, more brooding world.
New York to Hollywood to Walton Mountain
While working for NBC radio in New York, Hamner began to transition to television, writing for The Today Show, The United States Steel Hour, and The Kate Smith Show. He moved to Hollywood in 1961 and got his first big break by selling two scripts to Serling’s The Twilight Zone. He wrote eight scripts altogether for the show, while also contributing to The Wagon Train, The Invaders, and It’s a Man’s World. Hamner wrote Heidi, the made-for-television movie that, when broadcast in November 1968, famously preempted the final few seconds of a live broadcast of a close professional football game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders. The Oakland Raiders won the game and Hamner won a Writer’s Guild award for his script.
Hamner’s second novel, Spencer’s Mountain, eventually led to The Waltons. The Spencers represented an idealized version of his own family, and Hamner’s heartwarming approach to home and family set the tone for his later work. The Homecoming (1970), another novel about the Spencer family based loosely on Hamner’s childhood memories of Christmas in Waynesboro, was adapted by CBS into a special that aired in 1971. On CBS, however, the Spencers became the Waltons, and after a successful broadcast, Hamner was invited to develop a series.
Narrated by Hamner himself, the series featured the Waltons of fictional Walton’s Mountain, Virginia, and was told through the eyes of John-Boy, an aspiring writer. Running for nine seasons, the show became an icon of 1970s television and won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 1973. It also spawned twenty years’ worth of holiday and reunion specials.
Besides his most famous television work, Hamner was the author of the novel You Can’t Get There From Here (1965), about a boy’s daylong search for his father in Manhattan, as well as the screenplay for a teen vacation film starring Troy Donahue and Stefanie Powers, Palm Springs Weekend (1963). He also wrote film versions of Charlotte’s Web (1973) and Lassie (1978).
Hamner died in Los Angeles on March 24, 2016.
- Fifty Roads to Town (1953)
- Spencer’s Mountain (1961)
- Spencer’s Mountain (1963)
- Palm Springs Weekend (1963)
- You Can’t Get There From Here (1965)
- Highway (1954)
- Heidi (1969)
- Appalachian Autumn (1970)
- The Homecoming (1970)
- Aesop’s Fables (1971)
- The Homecoming (1971)
- Where the Lillies Bloom (1972)
- Apple’s Way (1973)