It was December 19, 1971, when The Homecoming: A Christmas Story—about a loving Virginia family anxiously awaiting their patriarch’s return on the eve of the holiday in 1933—aired on CBS. At a time when cops and doctors dominated TV drama and All in the Family was pushing the envelope, the wholesome film was a surprise ratings hit, spawning the heartfelt, all-age-friendly The Waltons (1972–81).
This Homecoming remakes the original with one familiar face in Richard Thomas, who played sensitive eldest son John Boy Walton for more than six years. “I do like the idea of the two shows ‘holding hands’ across 50 years,” Thomas says. After opening the new film as himself, the actor (as John Boy) takes over the narration duties originally performed by series creator Earl Hamner and now expanded. It’s a gratifying development: Thomas admits being disappointed when he learned he wouldn’t be speaking those “beautiful” words 50 years ago. But, he says, “Earl’s voice was inimitable and set the perfect tone.”
The story is virtually identical: John Walton (Ben Lawson), forced to work 90 miles away during the Depression, is overdue coming home on Christmas Eve, so it falls to aspiring writer John Boy (This Is Us’s Logan Shroyer) to reassure the worried family—especially as the weather worsens. “At the heart of the story is a young man trying to learn how to be a man,” Thomas says. Christmas is a time for miracles, though, so we can expect John Sr. to reunite with wife Olivia (Bellamy Young) and his six children (not seven—the Ben character was excluded in lieu of more story for the other kids).
The message couldn’t be more perfect right now. Just as The Waltons was a tonic for the tumult and disillusionment of the ’70s, Thomas says, “It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a show about people who are struggling and yet try to find a way through, where love is actually the most important factor.”
The Waltons’ Homecoming, Movie Premiere Sunday, November 28, 8/7c, The CW
BONUS: Catch the 1971 Homecoming Thursday, November 25, at 3/2c on INSP