Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Lewisburg, Union County
Bucknell Alumnus Ralph Waite is best known for his portrayal of John Walton on the 1970s series The Waltons.
Awards: Emmy Award
Ralph Waite was born on June 22, 1928, in White Plains, New York. He earned a BA degree from Bucknell University and an MA degree from Yale University Divinity School. He worked several occupations before deciding on a career in acting. After appearing in several films and television shows in supporting roles, Waite landed perhaps his most famous role as John Walton in the Emmy Award-winning 1970s CBS program “The Waltons.” He played the role for the series’ entire run from 1972-1981. After the series ended, he continued to act regularly in television and film throughout the 1980s and 90s. Waite also worked as a director, producer, and writer.
Ralph Waite was born on June 22, 1928, in White Plains, New York. He was born the son of Esther (nee Mitchell) and Ralph H. Waite, a construction engineer, and was the oldest of five children. Both sides of his family had settled in White Plains before the turn of the century. After a tour in the Marines, Waite attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. Waite, who admitted to being a militant atheist all through college, wandered around aimlessly as a youth to find his way in the world and tried his hand at several occupations. He briefly became a social worker in New York’s Westchester County and then attended Yale University Divinity School for three years on scholarship, where he earned a master’s degree.
After completing his education, Waite became a Presbyterian minister and religious editor for the publishing firm Harper & Row. He soon began preaching on Long Island and picketing for the NAACP. Meanwhile, Waite was battling alcoholism and had separated from his wife. He was suffering an identity crisis and felt the need to prove himself, so he decided to choose a tougher, more competitive field. While bartending to support himself at the age of 32, Waite began to take acting lessons. He had finally found his true life’s passion.
Waite made his professional debut in the off-Broadway production The Balcony at New York’s Circle in the Square in 1960 and was also seen on Broadway in Blues for Mister Charlie. His debut in The Balcony proved to be disastrous and for this reason, he regarded the 1965 Hogan’s Goat the true beginning of his professional career. In this production, he played opposite Faye Dunaway and earned fine reviews. After achieving some success on Broadway, Waite was encouraged to move west, at which time he began to collect small parts in such prestigious movies as Cool Hand Luke (1967), starring Paul Newman, and Five Easy Pieces (1970), starring Jack Nicholson, a movie which launched his film and television career. Another film, the coming-of-age Last Summer (1969), starred a young talent named Richard Thomas, who would figure prominently in Waite’s success in years to come.
In 1972, Waite was cast in “The Waltons,” a new drama series on CBS based on Earl Hamner Jr.’s 1961 novel Spencer’s Mountain. The show centered on a close-knit family growing up in a rural Virginia community during the Great Depression and World War II. Waite was cast as the family’s patriarch, John Walton Sr., along with Michael Learned, who portrayed his wife Olivia. The role would make him a household name, as well as Learned and Thomas, who played his eldest son, John-Boy. “The Waltons,” of which he directed 15 episodes, earned Waite an Emmy nomination and ended in 1981. He would later reprise the role of John Walton in a number of Waltons television movies throughout the 1980s and 90s. Waite would go on to pursue other TV character roles over the next two decades but none of them were as visible as that of John Walton.
After “The Waltons”ended, Waite decided to do his second TV series in 1983 with “The Mississippi,” which was produced by his own company, Ralph Waite Productions. In this series he cast himself as a criminal attorney who abandons his practice and leaves the city to pursue a longtime dream of a leisurely life captaining a riverboat. Unfortunately the series did not fare well and was cancelled after one season.
Aside from his work on “The Waltons,” Waite also landed prominent roles in numerous TV movies during the 1970s and 80s, including the role of the slave ship first mate Slater in the blockbuster mini-series Roots (1977), for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also starred in The Secret Life of John Chapman (1976), in which he played the title role, OHMS (1980), Angel City (1980), and The Gentleman Bandit (1981). He also appeared in a few films, most notably in his first feature film, On the Nickel (1980). Waite wrote, produced, directed, and distributed the film and also financed it by withdrawing a year’s advance from his salary on “The Waltons.”
On the Nickel was set on Skid Row in Los Angeles and dealt with a recovered alcoholic who seeks a friend who he finds wasted and dying. The basic idea for the film was born out of Waite’s drinking days. “These were my kind of people. I understood them,” said Waite. “I used to sit around with them in the alleys, and slowly the story took shape.” Waite credits his experience as a director on “The Waltons”in honing his craft. “Since I was on ‘The Waltons,’ I had learned how to direct,” he said. “I did 15 episodes. I just wanted to tell this story my way.”
Although he made a name for himself in television and in occasional film work, Waite had returned to his roots in theater from time to time. In 1975, Waite founded the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, which he served as artistic director. In 1977, he landed a notable role as Pozzo in a PBS production of Waiting for Godot, and returned to Broadway in TheFather in 1981. His more recent theater excursions include Death of a Salesman (1998), The Gin Game (1999), Ancestral Voices (2000), and This Thing of Darkness (2002).
Among his endeavors outside of the entertainment business was a recent foray into politics. Waite, who had held passionate political ambitions for years, decided to run for Congress from the state of California as a Democrat in 1990. He was unsuccessful, losing by five percentage points to veteran GOP incumbent Al McCandless in the Riverside County-based 37th district. He then ran again in 1998 for the Palm Springs-based 44th district, which was left vacant after a fatal skiing accident claimed the life of incumbent Republican Sonny Bono. This put Waite in the unenviable position of having to run against Mary Bono, Sonny’s widow, who had a wealth of sympathy to draw on. “I’m talking on the issues and hope people can get past the sympathy factor,” Waite told The Associated Press at the time. “I think it trivializes the democratic process.”
Waite had been the Democratic front-runner but had signed on to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in a New Jersey theater, despite persuasion from Democratic strategists for him to run sooner. After each Sunday night performance, Waite flew from New York to California, only to return to New York again on Tuesday. Carl N. Wallnau, a standby for three roles in Death of a Salesman, had the most nerve-wracking job, waiting to hear word of Waite’s whereabouts during his political campaign. Mr. Waite was “a well of endless energy, would fly out to Sonny Bono-land,” Mr. Wallnau said. “And he’d fly back on Tuesday. So every Tuesday we’d all be lingering. Then the cry would go out: ‘Is Ralph here yet?’” As described in a review by Alvin Klein of The New York Times and in the words of playwright Arthur Miller, “Mr. Waite is ‘trying to write his name on a cake of ice on a hot July day, but he wishes he were writing in stone,’ as Mr. Miller sums up the Willy Lomans of the world.”
Waite received favorable reviews for his performance, but the commitment kept him from running a stronger campaign. Waite was freed up for only two days to make a final push for the House seat, and many say this may have led to his unsuccessful bid for Congress. Waite was defeated decisively by Bono in the special election and lost to her by a similarly wide margin again in the general election that November.
Waite continued to act on television, occasionally landing guest spots on several shows. He had guest-starring roles on such series as ABC’s “The Practice”in 2004 and A&E’s “The Cleaner”in 2008, and a recurring role as Reverend Norman Balthus on the offbeat HBO series “Carnivale” from 2003-2005. Waite guest-starred in episodes of the CBS dramas “CSI” in 2008 and “NCIS” beginning from 2008 to 2013. He also played the role of Father Matt on the NBC daytime drama “Days of Our Lives” from 2009 to 2014.
Waite married three times; two of his marriages ended in divorce. He was married to Beverly Hall from 1951 to 1966 and had three daughters. One of his daughters died when she was nine years old. In 1972, he married Kerry Shear, but their marriage lasted only four years, ending in divorce in 1981. He married his third wife, Linda East, in 1982. He also had a stepson, Liam Waite, who is also an actor.
Ralph Waite passed away in his Palm Desert, California, home on February 13, 2014. Longtime friend Jerry Preece told The Desert Sun that Waite died of “a tired heart,” after a growing realization over the last two years that “his body was wearing out.”
Cool Hand Luke. Dir. Stuart Rosenberg. Warner Brothers, 1967.
Last Summer. Dir. Frank Perry. Allied Artists; Warner Brothers, 1969.
Five Easy Pieces. Dir. Bob Rafelson. Columbia Pictures, 1970.
The Secret Life of John Chapman (TV Movie, CBS). Dir. David Lowell Rich. Paramount Television; The Jozak Company, 1976.
“Roots” (TV Miniseries). ABC, 1977.
Great Performances - “Waiting for Godot” (TV). PBS, 1977.
OHMS (TV Movie, CBS). Dir. Dick Lowry. Grant-Case-McGrath Enterprises, 1980.
On the Nickel. Dir. Ralph Waite. Rose’s Park Productions,1980.
“The Waltons”(TV Series). CBS, 1972-1981.
The Gentleman Bandit (TV Movie, CBS). Dir. Jonathan Kaplan. Highgate Pictures, 1981.
“The Mississippi” (TV Series). CBS, 1983-1984.
A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion (TV Movie, CBS). Dir. Harry Harris. Amanda Productions; Lee Rich Productions; Lorimar Productions; Warner Brothers Television, 1993.
Ayres Jr., B. Drummond. “‘Waltons’ Star Sells Himself on 2 Coasts.” The New York Times 30 Mar. 1998: A12.