Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Jake Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Stanton Daily. Posted by Jake Frost
May 4, 1961
Currently Known For:
“Growing up in Hollywood and striving to be perfect greatly impacted my sense of self-esteem and body issues.” Getting her start as an actress at only 10 years old when she debuted in The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, the world watched as Mary Elizabeth McDonough grew up on television as the sweet and sensitive Erin Walton on the hit family series, The Waltons, from 1972 to 1981. Although she initially struggled to find her niche in Hollywood after the series ended, McDonough later made a huge comeback in the new millennium with appearances on The New Adventures of Old Christine, Will & Grace, The West Wing and Boston Legal. In recent years, she’s shared her story of growing up in Hollywood, her brush with death after a botched breast implant surgery and her diagnosis with lupus in her autobiography and as an advocate for people around the world in a career move that seems fitting for one of television’s earliest and most beloved sweethearts.
McDonough was born on May 4, 1961 in Van Nuys, California and enjoyed a rather quiet childhood until she was 10 years old when she was cast as Erin Walton in the television pilot, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, which introduced a family known as the Waltons living in rural Virginia. With the pilot earning praise from critics and audiences alike, McDonough was invited to reprise her role as Erin in 1972 and appeared on The Waltons until 1981 as part of a star-studded cast including Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, John Ritter and Judy Norton.
While the success of the series was certainly phenomenal, McDonough was still only a child and immediately felt the pressures of growing up in Hollywood and the constant need to be perfect. Later admitting that she had no guidance from a publicist or anyone else, she was exceptionally vulnerable. “My total fear of something that was new and unknown,” she later confessed. “It wasn’t so much of, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do anything new,’ but it was being constantly put into situations where I didn’t know what was expected of me, but I had this pressure that I had to do it perfectly even though I didn’t know what I was doing… I was terrified to make mistakes.”
By the time she was 15, the stress of perfection and puberty were taking a huge toll on McDonough both physically and emotionally. “The message to me became this pressure to be perfect and to look perfect and to act perfect and to not make any mistakes,” McDonough told The Huffington Post. “When I was 15, I had an ulcer, my hair started to fall out, I had these rashes on my head, and I remember my parents took me to the doctor. And the doctor said, ‘Well, is she under any pressure?’ And my parents said, ‘No, she’s the luckiest girl in the world—Are you kidding me?’” Little did they realize that she was starving herself before every episode where she wore a bathing suit only to wrap up filming by splurging on donuts in an ongoing rollercoaster with her weight and self-esteem that was rooted in her need to be perfect.
Wrapping up The Waltons in 1981, McDonough still struggled with her self-esteem and opted for breast implants after being told she wasn’t curvy enough to land bigger acting roles. After the surgery nearly killed her with the silicone leaking into her body, McDonough said, “I would never have made such a stupid choice had I not already had self-esteem issues.” Instead, she spent the next decade in constant pain as she battled ongoing fatigue and weakness with doctors unable to find a diagnosis as friends and family told her she was simply depressed and needed therapy. Admitting that she “just didn’t feel right,” McDonough was eventually diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Sjogren’s Syndrome and Lupus.
Amid the breast implants and her ongoing physical battles, McDonough continued acting and reprised her role as Erin in The Waltons: A Decade of the Waltons, A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain, Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain and A Day of Thanks on Walton’s Mountain while appearing in popular series like The Love Boat and Hunter. Unable to escape her Walton’s career even in the 1990s with a few television films, audiences eventually outgrew the Waltons as McDonough went on to appear in hit series like ER, The Pretender, Ally McBeal and Walker, Texas Ranger.
By the new millennium, things slowed down for McDonough with guest spots on shows like The West Wing, The Division, Boston Legal and Will & Grace when her beloved television family suffered a great loss with the death of John Ritter (Rev. Matthew Fordwick) in September 2003. Recalling John’s influence on her life as a child, McDonough credited the talented actor for saving her life after he noticed how much pain she was in on the set. “I finally admitted to him that I was really sad and somewhat depressed and frustrated,” McDonough recalled. “He told me about journaling and I went out that night and bought a spiral notebook and started to pound my emotions and feelings and secrets into this notebook. So, John Ritter, I attribute to really saving my life… I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t write it out.”
Taking a cue from her late costar, McDonough started writing full time and, in March 2011, published her first book—Lessons from the Mountain: What I learned from Erin Walton. Recounting her self-esteem issues, life on the set with one of television’s most adored families and her health issues, McDonough has used her own experience and struggles to help others. Today, the 56-year-old is an activist and life coach who says, “I’m not alone and I never was alone, and none of us are. And now I can help people, and the reason I do almost everything I do is so that no one feels as alone and as terrified as I did. And it’s pretty rewarding.”