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Obituary: Ralph Waite

Ralph Waite

Obituary by Jack Foley

ACTOR Ralph Waite, best known for playing John Walton Sr (or Papa Walton) in the long-running TV show The Waltons, has died at the age of 85.

He passed away in Palm Desert, California, where he lived, according to his manager, Susan Zachary, who described him as “the best client and a fantastic human being”.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, social worker and former Marine, Waite lived a rich and diverse life.

Born on June 22, 1928, in White Plains, New York, he was the eldest of five children. Before turning to acting, he served in the US Marine Corps from 1946 to 1948 and was briefly a social worker upon leaving the Army.

He then turned to acting in the early 1960s, starring on Broadway opposite Faye Dunaway in Hogan’s Goat, and then picking small screen roles in films such as Cool Hand Luke, alongside Paul Newman, and Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson.

His big break, however, came in 1972 when he was cast in the iconic role of John Walton, a Depression-era homesteader and father of seven, living in rural Virginia, who won the hearts and minds of a global audience in The Waltons.

The show was actually an unexpected hit but ran for nine seasons, prompting a series of movie spin-offs.

Reflecting on its success last year in an interview with local paper The Lancaster News, Waite observed: “Somehow, we struck a vein in the life of the world.”

The actor received an Emmy nomination for his role, repeating the trick for his performance in the 1977 mini-series Roots, in which he played Slater, the first mate of a slave ship.

And with success firmly established, he began pursuing his own passion projects while looking into areas of particular interest for him.

In 1975, he founded the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, donating $50,000 to get the company off the ground, and he also ran for Congress in California three times as a Democrat – although his campaigns proved unsuccessful.

Mindful of his own struggles with alcohol, he became involved in an alcohol and drug recovery programme.

Waite remained a working actor until late last year, with other notable supporting roles coming the ’90s blockbusters Cliffhanger, in which he played a mountain helicopter rescue pilot alongside Sylvester Stallone, and The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner.

Last year, he also starred in the long-running crime series NCIS, playing the father to Mark Harmon’s protagonist, and appeared in Bones and US soap Days of Our Lives, as Father Matt.

He was married three times, and is survived by two daughters from his first marriage.

Among the first to pay tribute was Michael Learned, who played is wife on The Waltons, Olivia. She said: “Ralph was a good honest actor and a good honest man. He was my spiritual husband. We loved each other for over 40 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.”