For more than 60 years, Ellen Corby was an award-winning actress in Hollywood, cast in numerous Western films and best-known for her iconic role as Grandma Esther Walton in the hit CBS television series The Waltons.
Corby was born Ellen Hansen on June 3, 1911, in Racine, Wisconsin, to Danish parents. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in high school, she was drawn to theater and drama classes. As a young woman in 1932, she decided to move across the country to Los Angeles, California, to pursue a career in Hollywood.
Before she was in front of the camera, Corby was a writer. She spent more than a decade writing for the 1941 Western television show, Twilight on the Trail. She also married her husband, cinematographer Francis Corby, in 1934. While working as a writer, she took acting classes for over a decade. Corby and her husband later divorced in 1944.
Corby moved forward with small parts but was uncredited in numerous films from the 1930s to the mid-1940s. One of her biggest breakthrough performances was in the 1948 film I Remember Mama, which earned her an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
From the 1950s to 1990s, Corby was cast in well over a 100 roles, often small parts in Western television and film projects, including the 1957 TV series Trackdown. The TV show was set in Texas in the post-Civil War era. Corby plays the owner of a newspaper who’s friends with the main character, a Texas Ranger named Hoby Gilman, played by Robert Culp. Several other Western parts included the television shows The Restless Gun, Wagon Train, The Virginian, The Big Valley, The Guns of Will Sonnett, and many more.
Her Hollywood career took new heights in 1971 when she was first cast as Grandma Esther Walton in the TV film The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. The success of the movie led to the 1972 creation of the TV series The Waltons, with Corby continuing her role as Grandma Esther. The series was set during the Great Depression and World War II in a mountain community in Virginia, following the stories of a tight-knit Virginia family. Corby played the part of Grandma Esther for almost the entire duration of the show, from 1972 to 1981. Corby suffered a stroke in November 1976 and returned to The Waltons in 1978. She showed through her character the same challenges she was facing in real life recovering from her stroke. For her performance on The Waltons, she won three Emmys and also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a TV series.
Corby’s final role was in her beloved role as Grandma Esther in the 1997 TV movie A Walton Easter. Corby died two years later, on April 14. 1999 at the age of 87. Her lifetime work in over 100 films and television roles shows how her longevity, tenacity, and determination took her to the highest heights, from Hollywood to mountain life, to the West.