Ralph Waite, who played the patriarch on the hit CBS series “The Waltons,” passed away Thursday at the age of 85. Cause of death has not been determined.
John Sr., the character played by Waite, served as a father figure to many of the viewers who tuned into the show. He was a good-hearted, hard-working and wise man who wanted the best for his family and his children. In 2004 TV Guide listed him as number three on their list of the greatest TV dads. Waite played the role for all nine seasons and reprised the character in the six made-for-television sequel movies. He would receive an Emmy nomination in 1978 for playing John Sr. He also directed 16 episodes of the series.
“Ralph was a good honest actor and a good honest man,” said actress Michael Learned, who portrayed Waite’s wife Olivia on The Waltons. “He was my spiritual husband. We loved each other for over forty years. He died a working actor at the top of his game. He was a loving mentor to many and a role model to an entire generation. I’m devastated.”
Waite’s other TV work includes “Roots,” for which he received an Emmy nomination for his role as slave ship mate Slater; “NCIS, where he played the father of Mark Harmon’s character; “Bones,” where he played the grandfather of David Boreanz’s character; HBO’s “Carnivale” as Rev. Norman Balthus; “Days of our Lives; and much more. Film work includes “Cool Hand Luke,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Bodyguard,” and “Cliffhanger.”
“Everyone at NCIS is deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague Ralph Waite,” the show’s cast and crew said in a statement sent out by CBS. “Ralph was family to us, a tremendous talent and a very special man. We truly cherish the time we had with him. Our hearts and prayers go out to his loved ones.”
Waite was born on June 22, 1928 in White Plains, New York. He was the oldest of five children. After high school he served in the Marine Corps for two years and then afterwards studied social work at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania on the GI Bill. He worked for a while as social worker but grew tired of the bureaucracy and decided to pursue a new career. He worked as an editor for Harper & Row publishing but that didn’t suit him either. He then earned a master’s degree from Yale University’s Divinity School and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. For four years he served as a pastor in the New York area.
“He was a top-notch minister and a dynamic actor in the pulpit even then,” former parishioner and actor Bill Hayes told TV Guide in 1975. “But I don’t think Ralph ever enjoyed being asked to conform to the mold or the stereotype expected of most clergymen. He was disturbed by people telling him to straighten his tie or shine his shoes or fix the hole in his sock. He was a very individualistic guy who wanted to be himself.”
At the recommendation of his friend, Bill Hayes, he went to acting class and fell in love with acting. He quit the ministry in his 30s and decided to pursue acting. The decision worked out fine as he started appearing in roles in off-Broadway and Broadway plays. This lead to roles in films such as “Five Easy Pieces” and “Cool Hand Luke” which of course would lead into a long and successful career for the actor.
In 1975 Waite founded the Los Angeles Actors Theater, an experimental theater company. To get the company off the ground he spent $50,000 of his own money. The theater company won many awards, including the Margaret Harford Award given by Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for “its consistently high standards, its commitment to adventurous theater and to community involvement.”
Waite also had a short-lived production company, Ralph Waite productions. He produced the movie “On the Nickel,” the TV series “The Mississippi” and the TV movies “The Secret Life of John Chapman,” “OHMS,” “Angle City” and “The Gentlemen bandit.
He is survived by his third, wife, Linda East and two daughters from his first marriage.
Do you have any memories of watching Waite and “The Waltons?” Share them in the comments below.