The eldest of six sisters, Michael Learned spent her first decade on her family's farm in Connecticut. When she was 11, Learned moved to Austria, where her father worked for the U.S. State Department. While attending boarding school in England, she discovered the theater, and decided to make it her life's work. At 16, she married actor Peter Donat, a union that lasted until 1972. Dividing her time between stage acting and raising her sons, she appeared in Canadian and American Shakespeare Festival, and for several years was associated with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. While appearing in a production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, Learned was selected by John Rich to play Olivia Walton on his upcoming TV series The Waltons (she replaced Patricia Neal, who starred as Olivia in the 1971 pilot film The Homecoming). She remained with The Waltons until 1980, winning three Emmies in the process. In 1981, she was starred as Mary Benjamin in her own series, Nurse (1981-82), which earned her a fourth Emmy. Hoping to distance herself from the Olivia Walton image, she went to play Dr. Marie Teller in the 1988 weekly Hothouse and model agency head Trish Carlin in Living Dolls (1989). She also appeared in such theatrical features as Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) and such made-for-TV specials as All My Sons (1986). Eventually, however, Michael Learned returned to the Waltons fold in a 1995 TV-movie reunion.