Ralph Waite dies at 85; actor played ‘The Waltons’ patriarch

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Ralph Waite, an actor who played the patriarch of a Depression-era Virginia family on the classic television series “The Waltons,” has died. He was 85.

Waite, a Palm Desert resident, died Thursday, his manager, Alan Mills, told the Associated Press. The cause was not immediately determined, Mills said.

Waite had been in good health and appeared last year in episodes of the series “NCIS,” “Bones” and “Days of Our Lives.”


“The Waltons,” which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1981, starred Waite as John Walton; Richard Thomas played his oldest son, John-Boy, an aspiring novelist. The folksy drama about the large, close-knit family was set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and was narrated by its creator, Earl Hamner Jr., who based it on his family memories.

Waite came to acting relatively late in life.

He was born June 22, 1928, in White Plains, N.Y., and after serving in the Marines, enrolled at Bucknell University. He earned a bachelor’s degree and did graduate work at the New School of Social Research in New York, then changed course and entered the Yale University Divinity School.

He was ordained a Presbyterian minister and spent four years as a pastor in New York before he decided on a new path.

“I felt uncomfortable. I felt somewhere my life had taken a wrong turn,” Waite told Times TV critic Cecil Smith in 1976. “I was never a particularly religious man. I was more interested in social justice.”

He got a job as an editor at the Harper & Row publishing house, then in 1960 took a friend’s suggestion to study acting. He began appearing on and off Broadway.

Waite landed small parts in films such as “Cool Hand Luke” and “Five Easy Pieces” and guest roles in a handful of television series, including “Bonanza,” before winning the role as John Walton.


And even though he made many other TV, film and stage appearances, including the landmark 1977 miniseries “Roots,” viewers remembered him as the family man John Walton.

“Before I did ‘The Waltons’ TV series, I couldn’t conceive of worrying about playing a bad guy or any other part that interested me,” Waite said in the 1976 Times interview. “But if you travel around the country, you begin to recognize the immense affection people have for the character I play.”

In the 1980s and ‘90s he became involved in politics in the Coachella Valley. Waite, who described himself as a moderate Democrat, said he was spurred on by a speech Czech President Vaclav Havel made to Congress.

“I got a sense of how inspiring our democracy and freedom are to other people in the world,” Waite told The Times in 1990. “I decided ... this was the occasion to rededicate myself to our political life.”

Waite ran for Congress but lost in 1990 and 1998.

A complete list of survivors was unavailable.