Ralph Waite, A TV Star With Unusual Beginnings

Ralph Waite’s life has had many swifts and turns before he became the actor he is so well known for. Being the eldest of five children born in the 1920s, it is possible to imagine how he and his family might have struggled in the aftermath of the Great Depression. If you want to know how he became the well-known figure he is today just keep reading!

Image Credits: Getty Images / Jim Spellman | Ralph Waite at the Sony Screening Room in New York City, New York

Image Credits: Getty Images / Jim Spellman | Ralph Waite at the Sony Screening Room in New York City, New York


DEVOTED TO GOD, THE LIFE BEFORE ACTING 

Waite always seemed to have a keen interest in acting, however, this was not his only passion and his life choices show that exactly. The soon-to-be star went to Yale where he graduated from a Master’s Degree from the Divinity School and then was ordained a Presbyterian minister.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Walt Disney Television | Ralph Waite

Image Credits: Getty Images / Walt Disney Television | Ralph Waite

During his time at Yale, Waite spent three years studying divinity. However, the lifestyle and the rigidity of his role as a minister in his community didn’t seem to match his own personality. "He was a top-notch minister and a dynamic actor in the pulpit even then," former parishioner and actor Bill Hayes told TV Guide in 1975. 

Image Credits: Getty Images / Tibrina Hobson | Ralph Waite attends the 'The Waltons' 40th anniversary reunion at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California

Image Credits: Getty Images / Tibrina Hobson | Ralph Waite attends the 'The Waltons' 40th anniversary reunion at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California


"RALPH (N)EVER ENJOYED BEING ASKED TO CONFORM TO THE MOLD"

Hayes went on to add, "But I don't think Ralph ever enjoyed being asked to conform to the mold or the stereotype expected of most clergymen. He was disturbed by people telling him to straighten his tie or shine his shoes or fix the hole in his sock. He was a very individualistic guy who wanted to be himself."

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS  | Ralph Waite as John Walton in the episode 'Children's Carol', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," September 20, 1977.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Ralph Waite as John Walton in the episode 'Children's Carol', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," September 20, 1977.

Waite also had the opportunity to work as a Social Worker for the Westchester County Department of Welfare. He was, however, still very interested in acting and decided to take an acting class, which seemed to have been a match made in heaven. At 32 years of age, Waite left his role as a minister and began his acting career.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Jerry Engel | Ralph Waite, holding his daughter Kathleen, 9, was among those who attended services for Lenny Bruce at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square last night. August 13, 1966.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Jerry Engel | Ralph Waite, holding his daughter Kathleen, 9, was among those who attended services for Lenny Bruce at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square last night. August 13, 1966.


FROM ACTING CLASS TO CLASSY ACTOR

Changing from the church to the stage came as an easy task for Ralph Waite, and above all, successful. He made his debut in the big Broadway lights in 1964, where he landed his first role in a production of Blues for Mister Charlie.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS  | THE WALTONS top row from left: Eric Scott as Ben Walton, Mary McDonough as Erin Walton, executive producer Earl Hamner, Jon Walmsley as Jason Walton, David Harper as Jim-Bob Walton. Bottom line from left: Kami Cotler as Elizabeth Walton, Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, Ralph Waite as John Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton. episode: "The Yearning". Image dated October 25, 1978.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | THE WALTONS top row from left: Eric Scott as Ben Walton, Mary McDonough as Erin Walton, executive producer Earl Hamner, Jon Walmsley as Jason Walton, David Harper as Jim-Bob Walton. Bottom line from left: Kami Cotler as Elizabeth Walton, Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, Ralph Waite as John Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton. episode: "The Yearning". Image dated October 25, 1978.

His Broadway career was a long-lasting experience, having appeared in eight Plays, including a play in London. Waite shined in his roles in Watering Place, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hogan’s Goat. But soon enough Waite felt it was time to move on with his acting career, and so his big TV career began.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS  | From left, Ralph Waite (as John Walton), Richard Thomas (as John Boy Walton), and Michael Learned (as Olivia Walton) in THE WALTONS. January 1, 1974.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | From left, Ralph Waite (as John Walton), Richard Thomas (as John Boy Walton), and Michael Learned (as Olivia Walton) in THE WALTONS. January 1, 1974.


FROM THE STAGE TO THE SCREEN

Having had his first TV appearance as a Host for Look Up and Live, Waite’s televised career took a steady growth all the way until 2014. Being mostly known for his most recent roles in Days of Our Lives, NCIS, and Bones, some of his most prominent acting pieces include Cool Hand Luke, Five Easy Pieces, and The Stone Killer. 

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned (as Olivia Walton), Ralph Waite (as John Walton) in THE WALTONS. January 1, 1974.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned (as Olivia Walton), Ralph Waite (as John Walton) in THE WALTONS. January 1, 1974.

An acclaimed actor, who took his own personal experience as a minister, social worker, and individual, Waite kept the audience on the edge of their seat with his extraordinarily believable acting. He accomplished the channeling of his background into a film, On the Nickel, where he acted as Producer, Director, Writer, and Actor.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | From left to right, Ralph Waite (as John Walton) and Richard Thomas (as John Boy Walton), in THE WALTONS. 1974.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | From left to right, Ralph Waite (as John Walton) and Richard Thomas (as John Boy Walton), in THE WALTONS. 1974.


THE WALTONS: WAITE'S SUCCESS BREAK

Being a multifaceted actor, from Broadway shows to television movies and series, Waite became one of the most famous TV faces due to its Depression-era patriarch role in the series The Waltons. Becoming one of the most acclaimed TV shows in the 1970s, the success of the series was mostly due to the character of the actors who played in it.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | 'The Waltons''s cast poses for a promotional photo, 1972. L-R: (back row) Michael Learned, Richard Thomas and Ralph Waite; (center row) Jon Walmsley, Ellen Corby, Will Geer, Kami Cotler and David W. Harper; (bottom row) Judy Norton Taylor, Eric Scott and Elizabeth McDonough.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | 'The Waltons''s cast poses for a promotional photo, 1972. L-R: (back row) Michael Learned, Richard Thomas and Ralph Waite; (center row) Jon Walmsley, Ellen Corby, Will Geer, Kami Cotler and David W. Harper; (bottom row) Judy Norton Taylor, Eric Scott and Elizabeth McDonough.

Even though his career in Broadway had made him a known player in the acting scene, when offered the role on The Waltons Waite was less than enthusiastic. It was his agent who suggested and advised him to take on such a role, in order to make some money in Hollywood before returning to his home in New York.

Source: Getty Images / CBS | THE WALTONS Michael Learned as Olivia Walton and Ralph Waite as John Walton on "The Empty Nest". Image dated June 16, 1978.

Source: Getty Images / CBS | THE WALTONS Michael Learned as Olivia Walton and Ralph Waite as John Walton on "The Empty Nest". Image dated June 16, 1978.


TELEVISION AND STAGE, TWO OF WAITE'S PASSIONS

The unexpected success of The Waltons made way for Waite to become one of the most well-known actors of the era, which then led him to continue his acting career in other TV series, as well as the TV movie adaptations of The Waltons’ stories. Waite’s career exploded with new casting calls for several TV series and TV movies.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | THE WALTONS Michael Learned as Olivia Walton and Ralph Waite as John Walton on "The Parting". Image dated November 16, 1978.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | THE WALTONS Michael Learned as Olivia Walton and Ralph Waite as John Walton on "The Parting". Image dated November 16, 1978.

Even though Waite had steadily been developing and strengthening his TV career, his love for stage acting never died, and thus he kept being involved with plays. In 1995, after he had already made a name for himself in the small screen, he accomplished the incredible triumph of taking part in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archive | Ralph Waite, circa 1980.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archive | Ralph Waite, circa 1980.


AWARD-WINNING PLAYS

Having created the role of Will Kidder for the incredible play The Young Man from Atlanta, Waite became a star of his own, with success in all fields of acting. His previous experience in Broadway and in TV acting made him fit in this role like a glove, and thus its success was not a big surprise.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Walt Disney Television | Ralph Waite in Roots (1977)

Image Credits: Getty Images / Walt Disney Television | Ralph Waite in Roots (1977)


RALPH'S PERSONAL LIFE

Waite’s career was as diversified as the characters he played, and so was his personal life. His co-actress Michael Learned opened up about their chemistry during the time they worked together, confessing that they "had a deep love for each other".

Image Credits: Getty Images / Brian Putnam | Actors Michael Learned and Ralph Waite attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book 'Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton' at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 in West Hollywood, California.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Brian Putnam | Actors Michael Learned and Ralph Waite attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book 'Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton' at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 in West Hollywood, California.

Michael continued to explain their relationship and went on to add "And I think that’s why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will, and I miss him terribly. His wife is a very good friend. But what Ralph and I had was something that came across on screen.”

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton, Will Greer as Zeb Walton, and Ralph Waite as John Walton, in the CBS television series "The Waltons," circa 1977.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton, Will Greer as Zeb Walton, and Ralph Waite as John Walton, in the CBS television series "The Waltons," circa 1977.


A COMPLICATED MAN

But the actor also had his own faults: “He was a complicated man, he had a lot of issues. He had so many colors to his life and his character and he was deeply honest with himself and God conscious I think, and complicated. And because we remained the kind of friends we remained, none of that bothered me.”

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | American actor Ralph Waite smokes a cigar and enjoys a game of pool with his buddies in a scene from the made-for-television movie 'The Secret Life of John Chapman,' 1976. Waite stars as college president John Chapman who goes on sabbatical and takes a series of blue-collar jobs in order to see what life was like outside of the halls of academia in this GE Theater Special.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | American actor Ralph Waite smokes a cigar and enjoys a game of pool with his buddies in a scene from the made-for-television movie 'The Secret Life of John Chapman,' 1976. Waite stars as college president John Chapman who goes on sabbatical and takes a series of blue-collar jobs in order to see what life was like outside of the halls of academia in this GE Theater Special.


LOVE LIFE, THE THIRD TIME IS THE CHARM

Waite was very successful in his professional career, however the same can’t be said for his love life. Having been married three times, his two first marriages ended in divorce. From his first marriage, to which he divorced in 1966, Waite had three daughters.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS  | Ralph Waite as John Walton and Peter Fox as Rev. Hank Buchanan in the episode 'The Hawk', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," July 1, 1977.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Ralph Waite as John Walton and Peter Fox as Rev. Hank Buchanan in the episode 'The Hawk', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," July 1, 1977.

Having had some family issues within the first marriage, as well as due to his difficult first divorce, made Waite go into a downward spiral which he believes made him a stronger man. “It sounds saccharine,” Waite affirmed. “But you only mature when you face problems you can’t deal with.”

Image Credits: Getty Images / Gabriel Olsen | Ralph Waite attends at "The Waltons" 40th Anniversary Reunion The Wilshire Ebell Theatre on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Gabriel Olsen | Ralph Waite attends at "The Waltons" 40th Anniversary Reunion The Wilshire Ebell Theatre on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.


CALIFORNIA DREAM

Between 1977 and 1981, Waite was married to his second wife, Kerry Shear Waite, and soon after he got married again with his long-lasting love partner Linda East. Since 1984, the couple has been residing in Palm Desert and seemed to be living the Californian Dream, and enjoying sunny days.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, Ralph Waite as John Walton and Will Geer as Grandpa Zeb Walton, in the episode 'The Seashore', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," August 5, 1977.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, Ralph Waite as John Walton and Will Geer as Grandpa Zeb Walton, in the episode 'The Seashore', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," August 5, 1977.


THE END OF AN ERA

In 2014, Ralph Waite’s life came to an end, and he passed away peacefully in his home in Palm Desert, at the age of 85 due to age-related illness. His co-stars felt deeply his loss, and many came forward with messages reminiscing the times they worked together.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | 'The Waltons' At Christmastime. American actors (left to right) Eric Scott as Ben Walton, Mary McDonough as Erin Walton, David Harper as Jim-Bob Walton, Judy Norton Taylor as Mary Ellen Walton, Kami Cotler as Elizabeth Walton, Will Geer (1902 - 1978) as Zeb Walton, Ralph Waite as John Walton, Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, gather to celebrate in front of a Christmas Tree during an episode of the long-running CBS Depression Era family drama series 'The Waltons,' California, 1977.

Image Credits: Getty Images / CBS | 'The Waltons' At Christmastime. American actors (left to right) Eric Scott as Ben Walton, Mary McDonough as Erin Walton, David Harper as Jim-Bob Walton, Judy Norton Taylor as Mary Ellen Walton, Kami Cotler as Elizabeth Walton, Will Geer (1902 - 1978) as Zeb Walton, Ralph Waite as John Walton, Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, gather to celebrate in front of a Christmas Tree during an episode of the long-running CBS Depression Era family drama series 'The Waltons,' California, 1977.

“‘I am devastated to announce the loss of my precious ‘papa’ Walton, Ralph Waite. 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.”, Mary McDonough, who played his daughter Erin in the Waltons, mourned once she found out about his passing.

Image Credit: Getty Images / CBS | (L-R) Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton, Will Greer as Zeb Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton, Ralph Waite a John Walton and Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, in the episode 'The Revelation', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," January 13, 1978.

Image Credit: Getty Images / CBS | (L-R) Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton, Will Greer as Zeb Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen Walton, Ralph Waite a John Walton and Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, in the episode 'The Revelation', in the CBS television series "The Waltons," January 13, 1978.


RALPH'S COLLEAGUES WILL NOT FORGET HIM

The executive producers from the series Bones also issued a message: “All of us at Bones mourn the loss of Ralph Waite. We loved having him on set and in many ways his character was the moral center of our show as Booth’s plainspoken, loving, war hero grandfather. The entire Bones family sends condolences to his family and loved ones.”

Image Credits: Getty Images | (L-R) Ralph Waite and Joanna Cassidy in the "The Woman in White" episode of BONES (Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images)

Image Credits: Getty Images | (L-R) Ralph Waite and Joanna Cassidy in the "The Woman in White" episode of BONES (Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images)


FORBIDDEN LOVE: MICHAEL LEARNED AND RALHP WAITE

After finding out about the passing of Ralph Waite, Michael Learned who played his wife in the TV show The Waltons, came forward with a message: “There was a period where Ralph and I were both single and we did love each other. We thought maybe we should give it a whirl,”

Image Credits: Getty Images / Brian Putnam | (L-R) Actors Ralph Waite, Mary McDonough and Michael Learned attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book 'Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton' at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 in West Hollywood, California.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Brian Putnam | (L-R) Actors Ralph Waite, Mary McDonough and Michael Learned attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book 'Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton' at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 in West Hollywood, California.

Learned continued, “So I drove up to Malibu [to see him] but when I got there we just looked at each other and thought, ‘Nah, this will never work.’ We were smart enough not to carry it to the next step because I think it could have gotten really messy.”

Image Credits: Getty Images / Brian Putnam | (L-R) Cast members from 'The Waltons' Lee Purcell, David W. Harper, Jon Walmsley, Kami Cotler, Michael Learned, Ralph Waite, Mary McDonough, Eric Scott, Judy Norton and Cissy Wellman attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book 'Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton' at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 in West Hollywood, California.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Brian Putnam | (L-R) Cast members from 'The Waltons' Lee Purcell, David W. Harper, Jon Walmsley, Kami Cotler, Michael Learned, Ralph Waite, Mary McDonough, Eric Scott, Judy Norton and Cissy Wellman attend the signing of Mary McDonough's book 'Lessons From the Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton' at Book Soup on April 16, 2011 in West Hollywood, California.


A CHARACTER WITH MANY COLORS

“The smart thing was we were smart enough not to carry it to the next step, because I think it could have really turned bad. I’m not sure, maybe, but our love was very deep and very special and I miss him terribly.” Michael Learned confessed.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Cliff Lipson | Ralph Waite (pictured) returns to guest star in his role as Gibbs' father, Jackson Gibbs, in the show NCIS

Image Credits: Getty Images / Cliff Lipson | Ralph Waite (pictured) returns to guest star in his role as Gibbs' father, Jackson Gibbs, in the show NCIS

“But if we’d been married or something, I might have had a problem with his complicatedness and he might have with mine. We’re both very flawed human beings, but I loved him dearly, what can I say? And he loved me.” she explained in regards to why they never took it further.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Tibrina Hobson | Ralph Waite attends the 'The Waltons' 40th anniversary reunion at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Image Credits: Getty Images / Tibrina Hobson | Ralph Waite attends the 'The Waltons' 40th anniversary reunion at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on September 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

The lives of the stars are not always like we expect them to be, and that’s alright, as they are just humans like us. Keep reading to find out more!

ⓘ The information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, and images contained on, or available through this ENG.AMOMAMA.COM is for general information purposes only. ENG.AMOMAMA.COM does not take responsibility for any action taken as a result of reading this article. Before undertaking any course of treatment please consult with your healthcare provider.

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