ELLEN CORBY was an American actress and screenwriter who passed on this date (b: 1911). She is best remembered for playing the role of Esther “Grandma” Walton (as the wife of also gay actor Will Geer) on the CBS television series The Waltons, for which she won three Emmy Awards. She was also nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe Award for her performance as Aunt Trina in I Remember Mama.
Hansen was born in Racine, Wisconsin, to immigrant parents from Denmark. She grew up in Philadelphia. An interest in amateur theater while in high school led her to Atlantic City in 1932, where she briefly worked as a chorus girl. She moved to Hollywood that same year and got a job as a script girl at RKO Studios and Hal Roach Studios, where she often worked on Our Gang comedies, alongside director/cinematographer Francis Corby. She married Corby who was two decades her senior, in 1934; they divorced in 1944. The marriage produced no children, and she never remarried. Francis Corby died in 1956.
She received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as a lovelorn aunt in I Remember Mama. Over the next four decades, she worked in film and television, typically portraying maids, secretaries, waitresses, or gossips, often in Westerns, and had a recurring role as Henrietta Porter, a newspaper publisher, in Trackdown, starring Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. In the episode entitled “The Vote”, Henrietta Porter advocates for women’s suffrage: “Women should have the right to vote. Women should be in politics. They can’t do any worse than you men!” For her guest appearances in many Westerns, Corby in 1989 won a Golden Boot award.
Corby appeared as the elderly Mrs. Lesh, the crooked car peddler, on CBS’s The Andy Griffith Show. She guest-starred, frequently, on Wagon Train, Cheyenne, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Dragnet (several episodes), Rescue 8, The Restless Gun (two episodes), The Rifleman, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Fury, The Donna Reed Show, Frontier Circus, Hazel, I Love Lucy, Dennis the Menace, Tightrope, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Meet McGraw, The Virginian, Channing, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, Get Smart, Gomer Pyle, The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Invaders, Lassie, and Night Gallery. From 1965 to 1967, she had a recurring role in the NBC television series Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, based on an earlier Doris Day film.
Her best-known role came as Grandma Esther Walton on the made-for-TV film The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971), which served as the pilot for The Waltons. Her husband, Zebulon Walton, was portrayed by actor Edgar Bergen in the film. Corby went on to resume her role on the weekly television series The Waltons. (She was the only adult actor from the original Homecoming pilot to carry her role over to the series.) Will Geer, of course, played her husband in the series from 1972 until his death in 1978, at which time the character of Zebulon Walton was also buried. The series ran from 1972 to 1981, and resulted in six sequel films. For her work in The Waltons, she gained three Emmy Awards and three more nominations as Best Supporting Actress. She also won a Golden Globe award for best supporting actress in a TV series for The Waltons, and was nominated another three times. She left the show in November 1976, owing to a massive stroke she had suffered at home, which impaired her speech and severely limited her mobility and function. She returned to the series during the final episode of the 1977–78 season, with her character depicted as also recovering from a stroke.
She had that stroke in November 1976 from which she recovered and returned to her role on The Waltons in March 1978. According to Michael Learned, who played Olivia Walton, Will Geer may have saved her life. When she failed to show up for work, Geer immediately suspected something was wrong as Corby was a true professional who was never late. So Geer went with the show’s producers to her home, where they found that she had suffered a stroke. Following the stroke, Corby was supported by her partner, Stella Luchetta, whom she met in the 1950s. and who lived with her until her death. Her final role was in A Walton Easter (1997). In 1999, following several years of declining health, Corby died at age 87 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. Her memorial site is in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.