Ben Walton (Eric Scott) was a beloved member of the Walton clan in the 1970s historical drama based on Earl Hamner Jr.'s 1961 novel Spencer's Mountain. But when The CW rebooted the property with The Waltons: Homecoming in 2021, narrated by Richard Thomas an adult John-Boy, the only Ben in the movie was Ben Lawson, who played John Sr.
It was an omission made out of necessity, executive producer Sam Haskell tells Metacritic: "I was instructed and I wanted to expand outside the family — that if we were going to potentially turn this into a series we would need to bring in a lot more characters. And I was worried that to have that seventh child was going to just be a little much," he explains. It was also an omission not that uncommon, as Hamner himself dropped one of the children when he adapted his book for the screen decades ago. But, it was also an omission that did not go unnoticed.
"The only criticism we got was, 'Where's Ben?'" Haskell says of that first movie. "I thought, 'Oh my God! I've got to do something.'"
So when the network ordered two more movies, Haskell immediately got to work crafting a plan to bring Ben into the first of that pair: A Waltons Thanksgiving.
There was no mention of Ben in his first film, so Haskell didn't want to just have the seventh Walton child show up as if he had been away with relatives and no one talked about him. Instead, he created a brand new character — a little boy nicknamed Red, who rolls into town with foster parents who run a carnival game.
The fall is the time of year for the Harvest Festival in the Waltons' neck of the woods and Elizabeth (Callaway Corrick) and Jim Bob (Samuel Goergen) run into Red before the game is set up, but he tells them about it, and Elizabeth is determined to visit it (and him). They also encounter his foster father Abner (Britt George) being rough with him.
As the movie goes on, Red's life working a carnival game looks less exciting to the kids and very concerning to the adults. He lies about Elizabeth pulling a duck from the pond that will allows her to have the big prize, which gets him in hot water with Abner. (In the context of the movie, Haskell confirms, there were no ducks marked with the number that would allow anyone to win the big prize, but in reality, "there might be four ones to one three, or five ones to one two" in such a game.) And he also leaves the game unattended in order to go find Elizabeth after she runs off and gets lost in the woods. John-Boy gives him gratitude for the former action, and all of the Waltons praise him as a hero for the latter, but Abner gets physical with him once again because of it.
John (now played by Teddy Sears) tells him to look him up if he ever needs help, and sure enough, later that night, Red appears on the Waltons' doorstep with a bruised face. The family takes him in, calls the authorities on Abner, and decides to adopt him. And in doing so, Olivia (Bellamy Young) asks him his real name, which he tells them is Ben.
This is a major change of the original series canon, of course, and one that takes the story in a much more dramatic direction, dealing with child abuse.
"Back then, they really had those awful homes where kids were just abandoned and left, and no one cared and the government stopped paying for them; they just put them out into the street. And he has that little line in there, which, I basically heard all my life: 'Kids who were adopted, if they were redheaded, they were always the last ones chosen,'" Haskell says. "And so, we wanted to make that part real and that was just a fact of life to him. He was living the only life he knew, and as you could tell, we directed him to be stiff when Olivia would hug him because he'd never been hugged before. No one'd ever told him that they loved him; he'd never had a full meal on a plate; he never really slept in a bed. He only slept on the floor. And this was a whole new life to him. And I believe that there are people in 1934 and 2022 who have a similar story."
But even though the film is set in the 1930s, when many people might expect such abuse and turn a blind eye towards it, Haskell was well aware of the 2022 lens through which the audience would be watching it. Luckily, the Waltons are such kind-hearted people they never would have stood for abuse, regardless of when they saw it happen.
"All that is just part and parcel to the characters and story and the style that we wanted to create — that there's always love. And when you've always got love, you can get through almost anything. And that's the point that we're trying to make — and John says that line, 'We've got plenty of that to share, don't we?'" Haskell says. "Any time a child is abused it's horrible. And I think seeing that creates an emotion in the viewer to really get on the side of Olivia and John."
Even though this Ben has a very different origin story than the one in the original series, Haskell says his experiences, now that he is officially a Walton, will be very recognizable for long-time franchise fans.
"In the next installment, which will take place at Easter, Ben has to start going to school, but he's behind and he gets bullied and his older brothers will take up for him," the producer reveals. "Slowly but surely he'll just become the Ben that we remember from the original."
If you missed A Waltons Thanksgiving during its premiere, it will air an encore presentation at 8 p.m. Nov. 24 on The CW.