Ellen Corby

Ellen Corby

Edgar Bergen and Corby in the made-for-television film The Homecoming in 1971
Born Ellen Hansen
(1911-06-03)June 3, 1911
Racine, Wisconsin, U.S.
Died April 14, 1999(1999-04-14) (aged 87)
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles
California, U.S.
Cause of death Stroke and health issues
Occupation Actress
Years active 1933–1999
Spouse(s) Francis Corby (1934–1944, divorced)

Ellen Hansen Corby (June 3, 1911 April 14, 1999) was an American actress. She is best remembered for the role of Grandma Esther Walton on the CBS television series The Waltons, for which she won three Emmy Awards. She was also nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Aunt Trina in I Remember Mama.

Early life

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 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 working on the Paramount 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 (19571959), 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.[1]

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, Bewitched, Dragnet (several episodes), Rescue 8, The Restless Gun (two episodes), The Rifleman, Fury, The Donna Reed Show, Frontier Circus, Hazel, I Love Lucy, Dennis the Menace, Tightrope, Bonanza, Meet McGraw, The Virginian, Channing, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, Get Smart, Gomer Pyle, The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies,The Invaders, 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 show The Waltons, and was nominated another three times. She left the show early in 1977, owing to a massive stroke she had suffered in November 1976, 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, and she later resumed her role as Grandma Walton in five of the six Waltons reunion movies between 1982 and 1997.

Personal life

Ellen Hansen married Francis Corby, a film director/cinematographer who was two decades her senior, in 1934; they divorced in 1944. The marriage did not produce children and she never remarried. Francis Corby died in 1956.

In 1969, Corby trained as a teacher of transcendental meditation.[2]

Ellen Corby died in 1999 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, aged 87, following several years of declining health. Her mausoleum is in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.



  • All the Way Home (1981) as Great-Gandmaw
  • Wedding on Walton's Mountain (1982) as Grandma Walton
  • A Day for Thanks on Walton's Mountain (1982) as Grandma Walton
  • A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (1993) as Grandma Walton
  • A Walton Wedding (1995) as Grandma Walton
  • A Walton Easter (1997) as Grandma Walton


Miscellaneous crew


  1. Billy Hathorn, "Roy Bean, Temple Houston, Bill Longley, Ranald Mackenzie, Buffalo Bill, Jr., and the Texas Rangers: Depictions of West Texans in Series Television, 1955 to 1967", West Texas Historical Review, Vol. 89 (2013), p. 104
  2. "Ellen Corby". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 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.
  3. "The Texan". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved January 31, 2013.
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