June 3, 1911
Racine, Wisconsin, U.S.
|Died||April 14, 1999 (aged 87)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California|
(m. 1934; div. 1944)
Ellen Hansen Corby (June 3, 1911 – April 14, 1999) was an American actress and screenwriter. She played the role of Esther "Grandma" Walton 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 (1948).
Ellen 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[clarification needed] at RKO Studios and Hal Roach Studios, where she often worked on Our Gang comedies, alongside her future husband, cinematographer Francis Corby. She held that position for the next 12 years and took acting lessons on the side.
Although she had bit parts in more than 30 films in the 1930s and 1940s, including Babes in Toyland (1934) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), her first credited acting role was in RKO's Cornered (1945) in which she played a maid, followed by an uncredited brief speaking role as a kitchen cook in The Locket (1946). Corby began her career as a writer at Paramount studios working on the western Twilight on the Trail (1941).
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 (1948). 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 (1957–1959), 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, as well, 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 (as Lurch’s Mother), 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.) Actor Will Geer 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 November 10, 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 remained a regular on The Waltons through the end of the 1978–79 season, with Esther Walton struggling with her stroke deficits as Corby was in real life. Although Corby was able to communicate after her stroke, her character's lines were usually limited to one word or one-phrased dialogue, such as "No" or "Home"; her role dropped to recurring during The Waltons' final two seasons, though she later resumed her role as Grandma Walton in five of the six Waltons reunion movies between 1982 and 1997.
Ellen Hansen married Francis Corby, a film director/cinematographer who was two decades her senior, in 1934; they divorced in 1944. The marriage produced no children. In 1954, Corby met Stella Luchetta.
Corby in 1969 trained as a teacher of transcendental meditation.
She had a 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 (Zebulon Walton, her husband in the series) 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.
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.
In late 1969, Ellen Corby and I, along with 120 others, spent some months in the jungles of the Himalayan foothills near Rishikesh, India, becoming teachers of Transcendental Meditation.