“Most writers don’t know how to write for us. They either think we’re The Waltons or Father Knows Best.”
Especially during the holidays, life can get a little crazy. Things to do, people to see, errands to run, and coordinating schedules and trying to be everywhere at once just emphasizes our hurried lifestyles these days. The more commercialized aspects of gift-giving (and gift shopping) remind us of the harried nature of life. Of course, for many these days, it’s just adding crazy on top of crazy, in a life already going at a breakneck speed. Sometimes, a person just has to put a stop to it all, and find a place to slow down and discover a simpler way.
Hollywood is no different, except that the pace there is almost always on fast-forward, and holidays add even more stress and complication to life in the fast lane. And yet, there’s always a desire for many to find a way to return to a simpler existence, to slow down the rat race and find a different path. Of course, sometimes people are just forced to deal with the craziness, no matter how simple they want their lives to be. Two different shows dealt with these ideas, each in their own manner. But they both came to the same conclusion.
The first was the 1974 CBS series Apple’s Way. From The Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Apple’s Way told the story of George Apple (Ronny Cox), the father of a family of six, who moved his brood from the hectic pace of Los Angeles back to Appleton, Iowa, the small town he grew up in. Founded by his ancestors (hence the Appleton moniker), it promised a much more relaxed way of life for the architect and his family… if only they could get used to it.
George’s wife Barbara reluctantly went along with this move, although she wasn’t initially sold on the whole idea of uprooting her family and moving to what they considered “the middle of nowhere”. But she loved George, and knew the surroundings would likely be good for the kids (whether they believed it or not). So the family packed up and went to live in a converted old grist mill, complete with waterwheel and “old mill pond” (because, of course, that’s Hollywood’s idea of “small town”, even in the ’70’s).
While George and Barbara got used to the more rustic surroundings, the kids had their own problems. Accustomed to a life where friends are just around the corner and things to do are more plentiful, the adjustment to rural Iowa from big-city Los Angeles was more than a bit of culture shock. But slowly, older teen Paul (Vincent Van Patten), sister Cathy (Patti Cohoon), and youngsters Steven (Eric Olson) and Patricia (Frannie Michel for the first thirteen episodes, Kristie McNichol thereafter) learned to love their new existence. Dealing with their enthusiastic father, however, was still a problem.
“Earl calls him ‘a slightly berserk good Samaritan.’ He can’t help getting into other people’s problems, even when he’s not wanted.”
George was a “true believer”, and had faith in numerous people and causes. This obstinate refusal to back down over any situation rubbed some the wrong way, and made the family’s assimilation into the community a sometimes prickly proposition. Whether he was standing up for a losing basketball coach or defending an ancient tree’s existence, his activism in various causes occasionally embarrassed his family, but his devotion usually was worthwhile.
Created by Earl Hamner, the man behind the successful CBS series The Waltons, Apple’s Way was hoped by CBS to be a more modern-day adaptation of the same family-style drama, although the first season of thirteen episodes played a bit more like a fish-out-of-water comedy. Major retooling was done before its second season, with the actress playing the youngest girl replaced by Kristie McNichol (as she spelled it then). Of course, McNichol later went on to play in a different modern-day drama, Family, for many years.
The grist mill set was built on the old Columbia back lot, and was later retooled into the house seen in numerous episodes of Fantasy Island. Ultimately, the facade was torn down, and ironically it was replaced by the Walton homestead, moved to its new location when its previous site was sold off by the studio. But the simplicity remained, even if just as a memory.
The problem portrayed in Apple’s Way is about trying to fit your old life into your new one. While change is the one constant in life, change as radical as living a new life in such extremely different surroundings causes much greater problems along the way, and sometimes teaches some very different lessons. And while there are obviously times when you’re the student, there are other times when you’re the teacher.
“That’s an important reason Aaron’s Way is such an intriguing series concept. It deals with a family, which has been living in the old world, suddenly being thrust into a modern-day environment. Obviously, there’s a lot of conflict there.”
Just as George Apple had those moments of culture conflict in Apple’s Way, there was another man who faced many of the same challenges, only in reverse. In the 1988 NBC series Aaron’s Way, patriarch Aaron Miller (Merlin Olsen) led his Pennsylvania Amish family westward to California, and a winery where his son Noah had once lived. Although Noah had given up his family’s Amish ways, Aaron had kept in contact with him, until the young man’s death in a surfing accident. At the funeral, Aaron learns that his son had been living with a woman, and that she was pregnant with their offspring… his grandchild. In order to support what he feels are his son’s obligations, he moves his Amish family to the winery, where there are gentle clashes in society and style.
Aaron’s wife Sarah (Belinda Montgomery) and their kids are just as confused as the family in Apple’s Way was, but in reverse. Their simple life and unassuming ways clash, sometimes a bit more sharply, with those of the denizens of California and their supposedly “superior” lifestyle. But soon-to-be-mother Susannah (Kathleen York) is grateful for their presence, no matter what her more cynical parent Connie (Jessica Walter) may feel about Aaron’s family. And both families have to deal with Susannah’s brother Mickey (Christopher Gartin), who develops a crush on one of the Miller daughters.
Like Apple’s Way, this was a series that tried to turn a successful “period” piece into a more modern-day one. Merlin Olsen had been a winning addition to Little House on the Prairie, which led to his starring in Father Murphy for two seasons. In 1988, NBC needed a companion piece to Michael Landon’s new series, Highway to Heaven, and thus believed Olsen would again be a worthy place to start. Both shows had a more relaxed presence than many of their television counterparts at the time, and Olsen was a good fit for that style of show.
“For all the technical errors, I think the emotional honesty is there.”
–Creator/Executive Producer William Blinn
Unfortunately, not only did the Millers not fit in (nor were they really expected to, as far as the show was concerned), they also didn’t find any love from either viewers or critics. Comparatively few watched the show, and those former Amish who saw it disliked its portrayal of the religious community, and rightly so. This was, unfortunately, Hollywood’s version of Amish, which is occasionally composed more with misunderstanding than sympathy and, as such, didn’t ring true despite the best efforts of some involved. And so, the lengthy journey the Miller family had undertaken to California ended much sooner than had been anticipated.
Ironically, the cancellation likely simplified Merlin Olsen’s real life, as at the time he was also on NBC’s top team of NFL broadcasters. The former all-Pro lineman-turned-television analyst was traveling to football games each weekend in the fall, while rushing back to film Aaron’s Way during the week. Juggling scripts and football programs, not to mention airplane flights and promotional appearances for both NBC entities, made for an extremely hectic life, plus kept Olsen away from his own family (with three growing children). His family was the primary reason he agreed to perform in Aaron’s Way in the first place, as he felt there were no quality shows on that reached a wide range of ages.
“I like the fact that, at a time when there is very little television that we can sit down and watch together as families, this is the kind of show that really asks people to question what is happening in this world and asks people to look at values. What is right? It’s the kind of show that can be very productive in terms of doing something positive instead of instilling an urge to violence in our kids and our adults, as well.”
In both Apple’s Way and Aaron’s Way, there’s a germ of an idea that apparently Hollywood liked, even though it didn’t really express it well. There is virtue in a less hectic life, and a pace where time and conscience allows for values which aren’t always found in the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown. And while it is likely that those involved in green-lighting both series may have admired the sentiment, the presentation wasn’t really consistent with understanding the principles involved. A simpler life, in a simpler place, doesn’t mean any lack of understanding or knowledge of the ways of the world. It just means a choice made to savor the moments, to not get caught up in the day-to-day, and to celebrate all those things some people seem to take for granted. While the simple life isn’t always simple, it is often much better.
(With so many biographies in two large-cast shows, I’ll just list the more well-known personalities here.)
RONNY COX (George Apple) has a long career in television and movies, first making a huge splash in the film Deliverance, and appearing in the original Robocop. In addition to being mentioned previously on this site for his role on Cop Rock, he’s starred in Sweet Justice and The Agency, as well as featured and recurring roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate SG-1, St. Elsewhere, and The Starter Wife. His first love is singing, and he’s carved out a pretty good career as a folk/country singer, appearing all over the country, and selling numerous CDs of his songs.
FRANCES LEE McCAIN (Barbara Apple) was featured in many movie roles, including as Marty McFly’s (future) grandmother in Back to the Future, and roles in Patch Adams, Stand by Me, Gremlins, and the original version of Footloose. A stage actress by preference, she’s also appeared on Broadway, making her debut in Woody Allen’s first stage play, Play It Again, Sam.
VINCENT VAN PATTEN (Paul Apple) is, of course, from an acting family. His father, Dick, is famous for starring in Eight is Enough, and his brothers James and Nels have also appeared in various television shows and movies. In addition to his acting, Vincent was also a world-ranked tennis professional (as high as 41st in the world at one point), and he’s also written The Picasso Flop, a mystery set in the world of high-stakes poker.
KRISTIE McNICHOL (Patricia Apple, 2nd season) was extremely young when she joined Apple’s Way, but she went on a year later to star in Family (where she earned two Emmys for Best Supporting Actress) and the comedy Empty Nest. (She also changed the spelling of her name to Kristy, just in case anyone thinks I’ve got it wrong up above… that’s the way it reads in the credits of Apple’s Way). Tired of the Hollywood scene (shades of George Apple!), she left the acting profession, although she still teaches drama occasionally.
MERLIN OLSEN (Aaron Miller) was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, thanks to his stellar 15-year career with the (then) Los Angeles Rams. He became one of the top NFL broadcasters soon thereafter and, thanks to his relationship with NBC, he also signed on as Jonathan Garvey on Little House on the Prairie. His “gentle giant” demeanor led to a lead role in Father Murphy a few years later, and then the part of Aaron Miller on Aaron’s Way. He was a spokesman for FTD Florists, and also hosted numerous telethons for the Children’s Miracle Network. He passed in 2010 at the age of 69.
BELINDA MONTGOMERY (Sarah Miller) has also made these pages for her role years earlier on Man From Atlantis. In addition to recurring roles on Miami Vice and guest shots on many other television series, she’s best known as the patient mom of Doogie Howser, M.D. An avid painter, she currently spends much of her time working with her art, some of which has been shown at various studios throughout North America (and available at her website).
KATHLEEN YORK (Susannah Lo Verde) is a woman of many talents, as she starred in Vengeance Unlimited and had recurring roles in The West Wing and Desperate Housewives. As a writer, she’s sold scripts to many Hollywood studios, including Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Fox. As a singer/songwriter, she’s known as Bird York (her nickname), and her music has been featured on multiple CDs and in movies like Crash and TV shows like House and CSI: NY.
JESSICA WALTER (Connie Lo Verde) has had a long and memorable career on television, known to many as the matriarch of the Bluth family on Arrested Development. While her first television role was back in The Naked City in 1962 as a child actress, she later starred in Amy Prentiss (as a rotating part of The NBC Mystery Movie), Bare Essence, and was the voice of Fran in Dinosaurs. Currently, she appears on TVLand’s new series Retired at 35.
CHRISTOPHER GARTIN (Mickey Lo Verde) was a regular on the sitcom Buddies before becoming a part of another memorable one-season show, M.A.N.T.I.S. He appeared in Baywatch, N.Y.P.D. Blue, Desperate Housewives, and The Mentalist. He’s also appeared in multiple episodes of True Blood, and the Lifetime series Side Order of Life.
Not a lot exists online for either of these shows. Neither has come out commercially on DVD, although bootlegs can be found. Apple’s Way did get the full tie-in treatment (as was popular in the ’70’s), including a novelization and even a lunchbox with the characters pictured on the side. Although Apple’s Way was a small part of its history, interested parties can find much more information about many Screen Gems and Columbia television series filmed on their backlot at The Unofficial Columbia Ranch Site, full of pictures and stories about the many locations built there. Due to its shorter run, there’s almost nothing out there for Aaron’s Way in detail. And maybe that’s proper, as the world of the Amish in general isn’t one for publicity in the first place. The ways of the world, both complex and simple, will continue….
There are so many different people in this world, and just as many different ideas on how life should be lived. What is right for some isn’t right for others. While a great number of us find satisfaction in the lives we lead, George Apple and Aaron Miller both sought a new way to seek their own happiness, far different from the lives they used to have. Culture shock was a given, but they both had an ideal which they tried to achieve, despite the obstacles found in their way.
The ways of the world are sometimes our own obstacles, but they can be overcome. The worst thing anyone can do is just accept what is, instead of striving for what can be. Those who chart their own path create their own happiness, and don’t wait for others to provide it. A simpler life can be a better one, for those who have the courage and the patience to seek it out, and the consistency to live it despite the pressures of modern society. Like both Apple’s Way and Aaron’s Way, there’s a way for each of us, if we can “simply” find it.
28 episodes aired — none unaired
First aired episode: February 10, 1974
Final aired episode: January 12,1975
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central? No. It aired in the “family” slot of Sunday nights at 7:30/6:30 Central, back in the days when networks started the night early and gave the last half hour of prime time back to local stations.
A two-hour premiere and 12 hour-long episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: March 9, 1988
Final aired episode: May 25, 1988
Aired Friday @ 8/7 Central? Again, no. It ran into Growing Pains when it was a Top 10 show on Wednesdays @ 8/7 Central.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.