‘Waltons’ actress now fills role as Inglewood middle school principal

‘Waltons’ Actress Now Fills Role as Middle School Principal

ECMS Principal Kami Cotler was a child actor as "Elizabeth" on The Waltons in the early 1970's. Magazine shows her and John-Boy Walton. The Environmental Charter Middle School is in Inglewood. Photo by Brad Graverson

Some childhood actors turn to drugs. Others stay in show business. Kami Cotler became a middle school principal in Inglewood.

Unbeknown to most of her students, Cotler, principal of Environmental Charter Middle School, was a celebrity at their age.

Cotler had a major role as Elizabeth Walton, the youngest member of the family in both the made-for-TV movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” and the long-running spinoff TV drama “The Waltons.”

Last week she was on the East Coast, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1970s-era show with the rest of the cast. In addition to making a Friday appearance on the “Today” show, the group got together for a screening and a party.

For those too young to remember, “The Waltons” was set in the mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression. It centered on a large family that survived by living off their own land.

It was a wholesome drama whose episodes delved into all manner of family themes: triumph and heartache at school, the dilemma over whether to spank a child, a daughter who refuses to abide by country traditions, caring for ailing grandparents.

“The Waltons” predates other shows in the same vein, such as “Little House on the Prairie.” Indeed, its successful nine-year run may have helped pave the way for such family-oriented shows, Cotler speculated.

Last week’s reunion was far from the Waltons’ first. Bucking the stereotype of Hollywood prima donnas whose on-camera affection is matched only by their off-camera animosity, the Walton family long ago came to feel more fact than fiction. To this day, the members regularly meet the week before Christmas. They attend one another’s weddings, live theater performances and book signings.

A 1975 photo of the cast of the television series "The Waltons", including Richard Thomas (top row, center) and Michael Learned (top row, right). (AP Photo)

“We were together for 10 years and saw more of each other than we did of our own families,” Cotler said, speaking by phone from New York City last week.

With her vermilion red hair and a sprinkling of freckles, Cotler is the rare person who truly resembles the adult version of her childhood self. So it is not uncommon for people to still recognize her. A few years ago, while lunching with two other Walton sisters, a fan approached the table and asked Cotler about the show. The fan recognized Cotler, but not the others.

Of course, Cotler’s students are too young to know the face. And while the ones who watch the show with their parents may tell Cotler that they find her child character to be cute, they seldom are star struck.

“I used to say, if Madonna became a teacher, or now Katy Perry, they’d be like, `Ah, Miss Perry gave me homework,”‘ Cotler said. “Think about it. As a kid you didn’t think about your teachers as having actual lives. No, they were your teachers.”

Or principal, as the case may be.

Cotler is the antithesis of the child who was pushed into show business by overbearing parents. Her acting career began by accident. Her mother had taken her to a photography studio in Los Angeles from their home in Long Beach to get a Christmas portrait. The photographer, struck by the girl’s red hair, freckles and extroversion, suggested she give commercial work a go.

“I harassed her about wanting to be on television,” Cotler remembers. Her mom, then a marketer for IBM, relented.

Cotler tried for a spot on the popular, long-running TV show “Gunsmoke,” but it didn’t pan out.

“I had to cough but didn’t know how to do it,” she said, adding, “I was only 6.”

It turns out the casting director for “The Waltons” was looking for a pint-size redhead. (The show was based on a novel by Earl Hamner Jr. – who also created the TV series – about a family of redheads.)

The show’s steady success yielded a healthy paycheck. But in the days before gadgets and video games, preteens didn’t have a lot of options for lavish spending.

“It’s not like you’re going to buy endless chocolate bars,” she joked.

Cotler’s parents socked the money away. Years later, her education at the University of California, Berkeley, was fully funded. Once there, she didn’t even consider studying drama. Instead, Cotler studied education. Coincidentally, she landed her first job teaching at-risk youth in Virginia, the same state in which the show was set.

This was not by design. In fact, when weighing the pros and cons of taking the job at that location, the show was a strike against it. The biggest argument in favor was a desire to experience life in a more rural setting. An American studies major, Cotler had only lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Perhaps her desire to experience the heartland was informed on some level by the history of the show, which would make for a good chapter in a college textbook on popular culture.

The way Cotler tells it, the creators fully expected “The Waltons” to flop. The idea for the TV show came somewhat grudgingly, after Hollywood had taken a scolding from Congress for the lack of family-oriented themes in mainstream television. The pilot was wedged between two hit shows that were decidedly more hip: “The Mod Squad” and “The Flip Wilson Show.”

But to Hollywood’s surprise, “The Waltons” was a sleeper hit, finishing season two at No. 2 in the Nielsen ratings, between “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son.”

The phenomenon spotlighted a cultural divide in America: the creators of entertainment were coastal city dwellers, unfamiliar with what might appeal to viewers in the country’s midsection.

“There was a whole big world of people in between who nobody thought about,” she said.

To this day, “The Waltons” airs regularly on the Hallmark Channel as well as some religious networks.

Cotler, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children, was drawn to the charter movement when it became apparent that her eldest child was having a tough time in a traditional public school.

He was strong in academics, but wasn’t happy.

“He would call home with stomachaches just before recess,” she said. “The school was very focused on how many words per minute could he read. I kept asking, `Have you played with anybody at recess?’ … That’s where he needed support.”

She helped found a charter school on the Westside. He enrolled, and flourished.

About a decade ago, she applied to Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale to work as a technology specialist. She ended up landing a job as a history teacher. It was the kind of flexibility often lacking in the traditional system. Three years ago, she was tapped to help write the charter for a middle school in Inglewood. The school opened in the fall of 2010 with her at the helm.

Environmental Charter Middle School currently serves about 200 students. Plans are in place to move the campus next year to Gardena, home to much of its clientele. (The school hasn’t decided whether to also keep the campus at 3600 W. Imperial Ave. in Inglewood.)

She isn’t a blind supporter of the charter movement.

“I always tell families, every charter school is different,” she said. “If you hear someone say `charter schools are good,’ that doesn’t mean anything. You have to go look at it and ask, `Is this school a match for my child?”‘

Copyright 2014 Rob Kuznia