Ralph Waite: Patriarch of 'The Waltons'

Ralph Waite, Richard Thomas and Michael Learned

In the early 1970s, Ralph Waite, who passed away on Feb. 13 at age 85 in Palm Desert, Calif., already had a solid acting career on Broadway when he was offered a role in a new series. It was to play the father in a rural family who made it through the travails of the Great Depression by sticking to their simple, homespun virtues. It didn't sound that appealing to Waite, who was accustomed to more challenging, edgy stage roles. But his agent reportedly urged him to grab the chance to make a few extra bucks from Hollywood while he had the chance, since The Waltons was likely to be a short-lived flop.

Instead, The Waltons lasted for nine seasons, and then remained so popular that it spawned six made-for-TV movie sequels. A big part of the show's success was Waite's powerful but deftly nuanced portrayal of John Walton Sr., a wise, resolutely brave patriarch whose good nature sometimes gave way to a fiery temper. In this scene, he opens up about missing his own father.


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But there was plenty more to Waite. Here are some facts about the actor and his multifaceted life:

  • After serving in the U.S. Marines from 1946 to 1948, Waite earned a degree from Bucknell University; worked for as a social worker for Westchester County, N.Y.; enrolled in Yale Divinity School and became a Presbyterian minister; worked at Harper & Row as an editor of religious books; began acting classes in his 30s; and worked as a bartender and waiter to support himself while toiling as an understudy on Broadway.
  • He earned acclaim for his 1965 performance in the play Hogan's Goat, costarring Faye Dunaway.
  • Waite had a small but memorable role in Five Easy Pieces (1970)as Carl Dupea, the violinist brother of a ne'er-do-well oil field roughneck (Jack Nicholson).
  • Waite struggled with a drinking problem for years, until entering a recovery program in 1972, the same year that The Waltons debuted.
  • Producers originally considered casting Henry Fonda as Papa Walton in the 1971 movie-length pilot (called The Homecoming), but eventually settled upon Andrew Duggan (Twelve O'Clock High, Lancer). However, when Patricia O'Neal, who portrayed Walton's wife Olivia in the pilot, bowed out after suffering a stroke, the producers replaced her with Michael Learned. That necessitated finding a younger actor to replace Duggan - and that was Waite.
  • Waite appeared in scores of other TV shows, from the daytime drama Days of Our Lives to the miniseries Roots, in which he was nominated for an Emmy. In recent years he appeared as the father of Agent Leroy Gibbs (Mark Harmon) on the hit drama NCIS, and as the war hero grandfather of FBI agent Seeley Booth on Bones.
  • Waite twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress, in 1990 and 1998.
  • Waite founded the Los Angeles Actors Theatre in 1975, in an effort to give budding actors and playwrights an opportunity to showcase their work.


Photo: CBS Television/Wikimedia


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