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Ellen Hansen Corby (June 3, 1911 – April 14, 1999) was an American actress. She is most widely 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.
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 [clarification needed] 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 twelve years and took acting lessons on the side.
Corby began her career as a writer working on the Paramount Western Twilight on the Trail. Although she had bit parts in more than thirty films in the 1930s and 1940s, including Babes in Toyland and It's a Wonderful Life, her first credited acting role was in 1945, playing a maid in RKO's Cornered. The next year she had an uncredited brief speaking role as a kitchen cook in The Locket.
In 1948, 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 (1957–1959), 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.
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 in 1971 as Grandma Esther Walton on the made-for-TV film The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, which served as the pilot for The Waltons. Her husband, Zebulon Walton, was portrayed by actor Edgar Bergen in the made-for-TV 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 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.
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 .
She had a stroke in November 1976 from which she recovered and returned to her role on The Waltons in March 1978. Her stroke was written into the show, with Grandma Walton also suffering a stroke and struggling to regain her speech. Her final role was in A Walton Easter (1997). Ellen Corby died 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.
- The Broken Coin (1936) (as Ellen Hansen)
- Twilight on the Trail (1941) (screenplay)
- Hoppy's Holiday (1947) (story)
- The Waltons (1975) (episode story)
- Swiss Miss (film) (1938) (script supervisor) (uncredited)