Back in 1971, when “The Waltons” premiered on CBS, no one realized the popularity and longevity that the series would enjoy. For nine seasons, it dominated the ratings, winning numerous Emmy, Golden Globe and People’s Choice Awards. It also broke new ground in network television—proof that a show about family, and family values, could succeed even as the world’s values began changing.
Actress Judy Norton had no idea how impactful her role as Mary Ellen Walton on the show would be. By time she was 6, the Los Angeles native was already working in television on programs like “Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Tammy Grimes Show” and “Felony Squad.” But it was as the eldest Walton daughter that her career really took hold.
Fast forward to 2013, and Norton is breaking ground again with a new role, and a new type of TV offering. She plays Judge Sophia Wyndom on “Bluff,” a series launched this year on ConvergTV and the Venture Channel, accessible on the popular Roku Box (www.roku.com) system. It’s a new forum for TV—not only in its content but in the way it’s offered to viewers. And it’s a sign of the continuing evolution of entertainment in this age of technology.
“‘Bluff’ is produced completely by an indie company,” she said during an interview from her Southern California home. “It’s great that we’re part of an evolution in the film industry, where you can make a film or TV series without a big budget or superstar names. As producers, we’re no longer held back—equipment is easier to use and so much less expensive, and digital technology gives us more capability to craft the shows the way we want them.”
“Bluff,” a suspense-laden, character-driven police drama that tackles social issues like alcoholism, drug abuse, parenting after a divorce and child trafficking, was created by Canadian actress Jewelle Colwell, who stars as Detective Summer Brown. She pitched the idea to Norton through a mutual friend.
“Jewelle and I really hit it off immediately,” Norton recalls. “I loved what she was doing. She had a web series for one season, and took the core of the story and turned it into this TV series. It was kind of a natural progression for her, and for all of us as we produced the first six episodes.” Norton has also penned and directed some of those episodes, and the collaborative team is working on securing financing to produce six more.
When “The Waltons” was airing, there was far less competition in the TV market.
“We had three networks, and thus the opportunity to have extremely high ratings,” Norton said. “It was good for us, and even today, more than 40 years from when the series started, it still resonates. People still see and hear of the show. It’s a lot tougher for shows today to get anywhere near that kind of recognition.”
Still, as this year’s Emmy Awards proved again, non-network shows such as “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland,” and “House of Cards” on Netflix, are increasingly popular and in demand. The playing field has been leveled greatly for independent filmmakers and producers.
Norton has continued to perform for more than three decades since “The Waltons,” with many other TV appearances (including three Walton reunion shows) and on stage. She sings, dances and is an exceptional athlete. Her website (judynorton.com) showcases her great variety of talents. She lived and worked in Canada for several years (and returned to work on “Bluff,” which is filmed in Alberta), and has written the screenplay for a film titled “Finding Harmony” that will be released next year. Just last week, she began filming a new web series called “Disorganized Zone.” She’s as busy as ever, and she’s passionate about what “Bluff” has, and will continue, to accomplish.
“It’s a demographic that we have not fully served,” she says. “‘Bluff’ is really about the people who put on a public front, and use that to kind of bluff through their lives. What’s behind those facades is what we dive into, the demons and skeletons in their closets. It’s a much more mature show than the typical series, which makes it challenging to write. You can’t really express those types of emotions in actors with dialogue alone. But we all love that challenge.”
And she’s quick to point out that one of the secrets behind the series’ success is the investment, literally and figuratively, of the whole team.
“I really love the collaborative aspect of working with friends in this industry,” she says. “We have a fan page on Facebook that we constantly keep updated for our viewers, and get their comments and feedback. As new platforms open and develop, we keep our fans posted. It’s what makes this industry so exciting for me personally, and for so many of my fellow actors, writers, producers and directors. You have to get creative on all of this. Only a handful can do it for fame and fortune; but doing what you want to do, and doing it well, is its own reward.”