Ike Godsey (Joe Conley)

In an earlier, perhaps easier time, before supermarkets and malls, each neighborhood, village, or town was served by one or more general stores. Those stores typically served the community in many important ways. They acted as the communications center housing the post office and frequently the store had one of the few phones in the area. Most stores had its pot-belly stove, checker board, and many had a pool table. The store both bought and sold goods providing an outlet for locally grown produce, animals, homemade items and crafts. Sometimes the store keeper acted as barber, blacksmith and banker for the townsfolk. With the advent of automobiles, stores sold gasoline and sometimes the storekeeper made minor mechanical repairs.

Walton’s Mountain, Virginia was no stranger to this tradition, for it contained the most celebrated country store in American literature, Ike Godsey’s General Merchandise. Ike’s store played a pivitol role throughout the entire Waltons series for it served as the social and economic anchor of that mountain community. In creating the Godsey store, Earl Hamner drew upon his boyhood memories of two country stores; the Commissary at the Soapstone Factory where his father worked and the S and H Store located up the road from his home and operated by the Snead family.

Ike Godsey has been part of the Waltons from the very beginning, First in the novel, The Homecoming, and then in the two hour movie (pilot of the series) of the same name. In The Homecoming Ike was played by the fine character actor, Woodrow Parfrey. The following year, the part of Ike Godsey was given to Joe Conley and for tens of millions of Waltons fans, the two have become almost synonomous.

Joe Conley is often referred to as an “original”, meaning a performer whose image - his appearance, personality, or acting style is singular and unique. During the entire run of the series, Joe played a vital and unforgettable part. His character and face immediately captured public recognition and he is, without a doubt, the best known storekeeper in America. During a break in the filming of A Waltons Thanksgiving Reunion last October, Joe treated me to lunch at Truly Yours , a restaurant he co-owns in Tarzana, California. I asked him about himself, his family and The Waltons.

“I consider myself an actor, pure and simple,” he reflected, “and I am very proud of my thirty plus years in my chosen profession.” Joe said that his family boasts three generations of actors beginning with his maternal grandfather, “Snake oil Johnny McMahon”, a turn-of-the century entrepreneur who sold his magic “cure-all” after entertaining the crowd from the back of his horse drawn wagon. “My mother, Mary, was a vaudevillian with her own song and dance act. I was born in Buffalo, New York and broke into show business as a child radio star.”

In 1945, Joe came west to attend Loyola University where he plunged into college theatricals. Though military service put his education on hold he continued to perform in many Army shows and he entertained at officers and NCO clubs. Following his army tour he returned to Loyola later transferring to Arizona State University. While at Arizona State, Joe was cast as an extra in “The Sound of Fury.” He made such an impression on the director that his character was expanded to a feature role. Joe joined the Screen Actor’s Guild and began his professional career. After graduation Joe became a second lieutenant in the Army and was wounded in battle receiving a Silver Star and Purple Heart. Back in Los Angeles, Joe began his singing and acting career in earnest. His first TV role was in “Big Town” in 1955. Since then he has done hundreds of shows, appearing as a regular on “Bracken’s World”. “Acapulco”, “People’s Choice”, “Richard Diamond”, and others, as well as guest-starring on “Studio One”, “Playhouse 90”, and a dozen or more TV movies. Joe is also proud that he has over 200 commercials to his credit.

We then turned the conversation to the Waltons. “I think it’s great seeing everyone again. The script was cleverly written to include almost everyone from the show, and it is like going home again.” I asked him if it was difficult to be type cast as Ike Godsey. “Yes and no. I love the part and even hoped at one time that there might be a spin-off about the store and the Godsey family, but that didn’t happen. I was able to contribute ideas to the show and even tried my hand at script writing. But to answer your question, yes it is difficult for an actor to be type cast. To millions of people I am Ike Godsey. People walk up and just call me Ike and carry on a conversation like we are old friends. I have to remember that for ten years I did visit their home every week. To them I am an old friend or a member of the family. I really enjoy meeting and talking to the fans and that is a plus. Sometimes, however, I would like to be just myself and not an extension of my character, but I know that I will always be part of the Walton’s family circle. For that I am grateful.”

I asked Joe what the future held and he spoke excitedly about his novel, "The Speech Crafters." “I’m putting the final touches to the story right now. It’s about a 31 year old heroine insurance investigator who has a background in criminology. I think it is a good story and I am very pleased with the final result. Hopefully a publisher will pick it up.”

As we returned to the studio, Joe mentioned that he had been to Schuyler, Virginia several times while the series was in original production. He also attended the Museum’s Dedication in 1992. “That was an incredible touching event. I never expected so many people or such an outflow of love and affection.”

Joe makes his home in the San Fernando Valley with his wife, Louise and daughters Erin and Jana. He enjoys working around the house, golf, tennis and swimming. He is active with the American Cancer Society and serves on the board of directors of Angel Flight, a Los Angeles crisis center aiding runaway teenagers.

What’s next for Joe Conley? “I’ve often thought,” said Joe, “if they do a re-make of The Wizard of Oz, I’d like to play the part of the lion.”

 


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