Families come in many forms. At the heart of each, members generally want to share love, respect, and support between one another. Good humor uplifts spirits during trying times, and a cool head keeps perspective when things go awry. Maybe that’s why former President George H. W. Bush once said, “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” Representing this iconic family was a powerful cast that included names worth keeping track of. Here, the spotlight focuses on Ralph Waite, known as John Walton Sr.
Ralph Waite took a bit of time figuring out just where he wanted to go in life. His father provided mathematical, scientific exposure as an engineer. As Waite grew up, he intended on fighting in World War II but he was too young; he turned 18 by the time the war ended. However, he served in the Marine Corps for two years. After, he even became an ordained Presbyterian minister. However, he finally decided to pursue acting, which he began through summer theater in 1963.
Ralph Waite burst onto the film and TV scene
Shortly after deciding on becoming an actor, Ralph Waite really became one. His film credits came to include The Bodyguard and Cliffhanger, both in supporting roles. He still made ripples in the theater world, though, creating the role of Will Kidder for The Young Man from Atlanta. This drama went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
On The Waltons, he played the family’s patriarch. John Walton Sr. provided something of an example for everyone to aspire to: he exhibited a good work ethic, unflinching bravery, and a reliable nature at work and home. For his work as the Walton patriarch, Waite received an Emmy nomination in 1978. That wasn’t the only acknowledgment he received: Waite made an impression among his castmates. Castmate Michael Learned, who played his TV wife, called him a “good honest actor and a good honest man.”
What happened to Ralph Waite?
Waite’s years active span decades, from 1954 to 2014. But he did not just stick to acting, though some of his family did. But along the way, Waite also made an unsuccessful bid for Congress. First, he challenged incumbent GOP member Al McCandless. He also ran in a special election to fill a seat left by the passing of a politician. However, he twice lost to the politician’s widow.
Thrice he lost political office bids and thrice he’s been married. Two of those marriages ended in divorce. He was married to Beverly Waite (1951-1966), Kerry Shear Waite (1977-1981), and Linda East, whom he married sometime after 1982.
On screen, Waite presented a strict, traditional personality others could strive to be or help soften. Behind the scenes, however, Waite battled with personal demons of his own. Some of his early background, such as divinity school through Yale, might have lined up with Walton Sr., though the character kept religion at arm’s length himself. However, grief in his personal life drove Waite to some different choices than what John Walton might have made.
When she was just nine, his oldest daughter, Sharon, died from leukemia in 1964. Then, by 1969, his first marriage ended in divorce. Ultimately, he admitted he “got into some heavy drinking.” The contrast between himself and his on-screen persona did not escape Waite, who reflected, “I was a caring, responsible father to all of these kids. But I was drinking the night before and being a drunk on the side.”
Fittingly, Judy Norton revealed, “He credited the show for being the reason he got sober. He said, ‘I sat there one day at the kitchen table with all you kids and I felt like such a fake.’ He took himself to AA and got sober.” Of the experience, Waite would then insist, “you only mature when you face problems you can’t deal with.”
Passing of a star
So Sad. Ralph Waite has passed away. Papa Gibbs. We love him at NCIS SO much. So so sad.
— Pauley Perrette (@PauleyP) February 14, 2014
During his active years, Waite once again became an iconic father, this time in NCIS. There, he played the father of series lead Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by another star of his time, Mark Harmon. However, viewers of the series had to contend with the sudden absence of Gibbs’ father when Ralph Waite passed away.
He died on February 13, 2014, midday on a Thursday at his home in South Palm Desert. His presence and impact endure both through the impression he left on castmates and his contributions to filming. As a recovering alcoholic and former social worker, he channeled his experiences into a project that would capture some of the emotions these bring.