Feature

Ralph Waite, 1928–2014

The actor who was a father to America

Long after the television series The Waltons had been relegated to reruns, a stranger approached Ralph Waite, who had played the benevolent patriarch of the namesake Depression-era mountain family. His alter ego, she said, had been her surrogate father when she was a child. “I went to school and college because of you,” the woman told Waite. “Now I’m a lawyer, and I don’t think I would be if I hadn’t seen that show.” Waite never tired of fans telling him such stories. “I’m still amazed by that. It happens all the time,” he said.

Born in White Plains, N.Y., Waite didn’t turn to theater until he was 32, said The New York Times. Before that he’d been a Marine, a social worker, a Presbyterian minister, a bartender, and a book editor. He tried out acting school on a friend’s suggestion and ended up off-Broadway in Jean Genet’s The Balcony. An acclaimed theater career led to roles in movies such as Five Easy Pieces and Cool Hand Luke, and a turn as a brutal slave runner on the TV miniseries Roots. Waite was wary of full-time television in 1971, when he assumed the role of John Walton Sr., the owner of a struggling lumber mill and softhearted, soft-spoken head of a large, loving family in rural Virginia. Waite’s character loomed large for decades after the show ended in 1981. President George H.W. Bush urged American families to be “a lot less like the Simpsons” and more like the Waltons. In 2004, John Sr. placed No. 3 in a TV Guide readers’ poll of television’s best dads of all time.

Waite battled a drinking problem for much of his career, said People.com. After The Waltons he led a program for recovering alcoholics and delved into politics, but his two congressional runs ended in defeat. He remained a familiar guest star on TV shows like NCIS and Bones. He also returned to the pulpit, preaching at a church near his Palm Desert, Calif., home. “I’m not any more moral than my neighbors,” he said. “But at the same time I feel in my bones you lose a lot of life’s value if you don’t see yourself as a member of the family of man.”

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