The Waltons husband and wife were in love off-screen but worried about things ...

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They became famous as America's most perfect husband and wife on TV's The Waltons - the close-knit rural family whose struggles through the Great Depression and World War II ran for nine seasons and multiple TV movies.

And viewers often wondered whether the obvious on screen chemistry between actress Michael Learned and screen husband Ralph Waite ever spilled out into real life during the show's more than 10-year run.

Now for the first time in almost four decades, veteran actress Learned has revealed the truth behind their close relationship and told how they did almost become lovers.

In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com on the fifth anniversary of his death, Learned, 79, reveals that she and Waite 'were in love' off screen and they even went on a date.

But the pragmatic pair decided during their first intimate meeting that they probably shouldn't pursue a romance as it could ruin the famous show and 'get messy'.

Instead Learned says their instant chemistry turned into a lifelong friendship and Waite became her 'spiritual husband.'

Michael Learned (back row, left) and Ralph Waite (back row, right) starred as husband and wife on The Waltons (pictured in 1972)- a CBS show that ran for nine seasons and multiple TV movies in the 1970s

Michael Learned (back row, left) and Ralph Waite (back row, right) starred as husband and wife on The Waltons (pictured in 1972)- a CBS show that ran for nine seasons and multiple TV movies in the 1970s

In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com Learned reveals that she and Waite 'were in love' off screen and they even went on a date. When the show first started airing in 1972, Learned was going through a divorce and Waite had also gone through a divorce a few years earlier

In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com Learned reveals that she and Waite 'were in love' off screen and they even went on a date. When the show first started airing in 1972, Learned was going through a divorce and Waite had also gone through a divorce a few years earlier

Learned says their instant chemistry turned into a lifelong friendship and Waite became her 'spiritual husband'. The actress said they decided during their first intimate meeting they probably shouldn't pursue a romance as it could ruin the famous show and 'get messy'

Learned says their instant chemistry turned into a lifelong friendship and Waite became her 'spiritual husband'. The actress said they decided during their first intimate meeting they probably shouldn't pursue a romance as it could ruin the famous show and 'get messy'

In an emotional interview reformed alcoholic Learned also reveals how Waite 'saved her life' as her heavy drinking - mainly bourbon and wine - ran out of control during the early years of the CBS series.

Speaking ahead of the fifth anniversary of Waite's death on Wednesday, Learned said: 'We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken it that extra step, and we didn't.

'We never did. We thought about it, but we didn't.

'And I think that's why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will, and I miss him terribly. His wife is a very good friend.

'But what Ralph and I had was something that came across on screen.'

Admitting she was 'going to tear up', she added: 'He was a complicated man. He had a lot of issues. He lost a daughter from leukemia and I think that's when he started drinking.

'He was a minister before he became an actor.

'He had so many colors to his life and his character and he was deeply honest with himself and God conscious I think, and complicated. And because we remained the kind of friends we remained, none of that bothered me.

'But if we'd been married or something, I might have had a problem with his complicatedness and he might have with mine.

'We're both very flawed human beings, but I loved him dearly, what can I say? And he loved me.'

Learned, 79, revealed that she and Waite, 85, remained very close up until his death from old age on February 13, 2014, thanks to their bond working on the show.

Tens of millions of fans believed they were the perfect couple raising their family in depression hit Virginia.  

Learned, 79, revealed she and Waite, 85, remained very close up until his death from old age on February 13, 2014, thanks to their bond working on the show (pictured together in 2011) 

Learned, 79, revealed she and Waite, 85, remained very close up until his death from old age on February 13, 2014, thanks to their bond working on the show (pictured together in 2011) 

Speaking ahead of the fifth anniversary of Waite's death on Wednesday, Learned said: 'We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken it that extra step, and we didn't. We never did. We thought about it, but we didn't' 

Speaking ahead of the fifth anniversary of Waite's death on Wednesday, Learned said: 'We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken it that extra step, and we didn't. We never did. We thought about it, but we didn't' 

But off screen the passion burned strong too.

Learned recalls how there was 'instant chemistry' with her and Waite at their audition, which was her first ever screen try-out.

She says she somehow landed the dream role of Olivia despite concerns from some male executives at CBS feeling she was too young for the job.

But once filming began, she says, the 'attraction' between her and Waite helped their scenes to become 'more real.'

And it also prompted the pair to explore their feelings further off screen.

'We thought about it. We did,' Learned told DailyMailTV, a smile opening up across her face.

'There was a period where Ralph and I were both single and we did love each other so we made a date and it was going to happen and we got together and we looked at each other and went, ''Nah, this will never work.''

 It might have gotten messy, but our love was very deep and very true.

'Thankfully, we had the good sense to not take it the next step, because I think it would have gotten messy. It might have gotten messy, but our love was very deep and very true.

'The smart thing was we were smart enough not to carry it to the next step, because I think it could have really turned bad. I'm not sure, maybe, but our love was very deep and very special and I miss him terribly.'

Learned said that while the hit show - famous for its much imitated 'Goodnight John Boy' closing sequence where each member of the family says goodnight to the others - brought so much joy to audiences in the 1970s, she was 'in pain' playing beloved TV character Olivia.

In 1971, at the age of 32, the actress realized that she had become an alcoholic and her problems would have intensified over the years were it not for the love and support of screen husband Waite.

She admits that he saved her from becoming much worse.

'I was drinking heavily when the show started and Ralph saved my life, really,' Learned explains.

Learned said that while the hit show - famous for its much imitated 'Goodnight John Boy' closing sequence where each member of the family says goodnight to the others - brought so much joy to audiences in the 1970s, she was 'in pain' playing beloved TV character Olivia.  Pictured: Learned, Waite and Richard Thomas as John Boy Walton on set in 1974

Learned said that while the hit show - famous for its much imitated 'Goodnight John Boy' closing sequence where each member of the family says goodnight to the others - brought so much joy to audiences in the 1970s, she was 'in pain' playing beloved TV character Olivia.  Pictured: Learned, Waite and Richard Thomas as John Boy Walton on set in 1974

'He pointed out that he thought that I was drinking too much. I didn't think I was, but he thought I was and I haven't had a drink in 42 years of anything alcoholic and it is because of Ralph, and I think I was on the way.

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'I got off the train early luckily, but he was the one who grabbed

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