Ralph Waite: Patriarch in 'The Waltons' who led his screen family through the hardships that fuelled his political vision


Ralph Waite, who has died at the age of 85, was an actor who played the kind and steady patriarch of a tight-knit rural Southern family in the television series The Waltons. The gentle family drama, set in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, went out in the US on CBS from 1972 to 1981, starring Waite as John Walton, with Richard Thomas playing his oldest son, John-Boy, an aspiring novelist.

The show, which followed the Waltons' triumphs and setbacks through the Depression and the Second World War, was narrated by its rich-voiced creator, Earl Hamner Jnr, who based it on the family memories he had drawn upon in his novel Spencer's Mountain, which was made into a film in 1963.

The series, which played down some of the novel's themes, such as alcoholism and infidelity, was a rarity for US television – a respectful depiction of Southern country life. It was so popular, it overtook its NBC rival, the comedy The Flip Wilson Show, broadcast at the same time.

Waite, who also directed several episodes of The Waltons, was a native of White Plains, New York, and served in the US Marines before graduating from Bucknell University and gaining a master's degree from Yale University Divinity School. He became an ordained Presbyterian minister and then worked at a publishing house, before falling for acting.

He appeared on stage before moving on to the big screen with roles in the Paul Newman prison drama Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), in which he played the brother of Jack Nicholson's character. Waite received an Emmy nomination for The Waltons, and another for his performance in the ABC mini-series Roots, in which he played Slater, third mate on the slave ship that takes Kunta Kinte to Maryland for auction.

Waite's role as a steady father in The Waltons was in contrast to a personal life undercut by alcoholism. "I was a caring, responsible father to all of these kids," he said. "But I was drinking the night before and being a drunk on the side." Eventually, he added, "I found a way to get sober."

Waite had political ambitions which went largely unfulfilled. In 1990 he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic challenger to a four-term Republican incumbent for the congressional district that included Palm Desert, where he lived. In 1998 he vied for the congressional seat left open after Sony Bono – another performer who had turned to politics – died in a skiing accident. Bono's widow, Mary, won the election.

There were later returns to the Blue Ridge mountains in A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (1993), which was set in 1963 around President Kennedy's assassination, A Walton Wedding (1995), set in 1964, and A Walton Easter (1997), set in 1969. Waite appeared between 2008 and 2013 in eight episodes of the crime series NCIS, in which he played the father of Mark Harmon's central character.


Ralph Waite, actor and director: born White Plains, New York 22 June 1928; married three times (three children); died Palm Desert, California 13 February 2014.