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Ralph Waite dead: The Waltons star passes away aged 85

The actor, who played John Walton in the popular TV series, has died

Ralph Waite, who played the patriarch of a tight-knit Southern family The Waltons, has died, his manager Alan Mills has confirmed.

Mills said that he did not know the cause of death.

He also said that he was surprised by the news, as he had been in good health previously.

Waite starred in the popular TV series, which ran from from 1972 to 1981, as John Walton.

"I am devastated to announce the loss of my precious 'papa' Walton, Ralph Waite," said Mary McDonough, who played his on-screen daughter Erin Walton. "I loved him so much; I know he was so special to all of us. He was like a real father to me. Goodnight Daddy. I love you." 

Michael Learned, who played wife Olivia Walton, added that she was "devastated" by the death of "a good honest actor and a good honest man." 

"He was my spiritual husband," Learned said in a statement. "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."

Waite received an Emmy nomination for his role in The Waltons, and a second for his performance in ABC miniseries Roots.

During the 1990s, he ran for Congress in California three times as a Democrat - albeit unsuccessfully.

He remained a working actor until late last year, starring in '90s big screen hits such as Cliffhanger and The Bodyguard.

He also appeared in episodes of NCIS Bones and Days of Our Lives.