Ralph Waite, who was beloved to TV viewers as the ultimate father figure, John Walton, on The Waltons, has died. He passed away at midday on Thursday at his home in South Palm Desert, Steve Gordon, the accountant for the Waite family, told The Hollywood Reporter.
He was nominated for an Emmy in 1978 for his portrayal of the middle-American paterfamilias. He starred on The Waltons for nine years and directed 15 episodes. “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.”
Prior to landing his role on The Waltons, Waite had been in only one other TV show, a Nichols episode. Waite also performed in the vaunted miniseries Roots, for which he received a 1977 Emmy nomination.
More recently, he appeared in Days of Our Lives and had a recurring role as Rev. Norman Balthus on HBO’s Carnivale, a part befitting a man who once served as an ordained minister on Long Island. He also appeared as Jackson Gibbs in NCIS over the course of several seasons and as Hank Booth in Bones.
Waite was the founder and director of the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, which he established in 1975. To get the company off the ground, Waite allocated $50,000 of his own money to produce and direct revivals of The Hairy Ape and The Kitchen, in which he also performed.
LAAT won many critical awards, including the Margaret Harford Award given by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for “its consistently high standards, its commitment to adventurous theater and to community involvement.”
A former social worker and a recovering alcoholic, Waite channeled that background into a film on the lives of people on L.A.’s skid row, On the Nickel, which he produced, directed, wrote and starred in. Under his own production banner, Ralph Waite Productions, he starred as a criminal lawyer in the 1983 TV series The Mississippi. TV movies credits include the titular role in The Secret Life of John Chapman, OHMS, Angel City and The Gentleman Bandit.
Politically active, he twice ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat, including a run for the seat left vacant by the late Sonny Bono in 1998.
Ralph Waite was born June 22, 1928, in White Plains, N.Y., and graduated from Bucknell University. He later studied for three years at Yale and earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree. At that juncture, he went on to have stints as a social worker for the Westchester County Department of Welfare, as well as publicity director and associate editor at Harper & Row. He was a minister at the United Church of Christ in Garden City, Long Island.
“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.”
It was during his ministerial tenure that Waite traveled to his own Damascus, a night he spent with Hayes at an acting class. At age 32, Waite left the ministry to pursue acting.
His conversion from the church to the stage was immediately successful. In 1960, Waite got his first stage role in a Broadway production of Blues for Mister Charlie. In his first eight years of acting, he landed appearances in eight Broadway plays, including Hogan’s Goat, Watering Place and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. He also performed Blues for Mister Charlie in London.
As his stage career gathered steam, Waite also garnered small roles in top films: Cool Hand Luke and Five Easy Pieces. In 1969, he featured in coming-of-age saga Last Summer, which starred an up-and-coming Richard Thomas.
His other films include Lawman, The Grissom Gang, Dime Box and Sporting Club.
He had two daughters, Kathleen and Suzanne. Since 1984, he has been married to his third wife, Linda East.
Erik Hayden contributed to this article.