Born on June 22, 1928, in White Plains, New York, Ralph Waite earned degrees from Bucknell University and Yale Divinity School before beginning an acting career. Best known for playing the role of John Walton Sr. on The Waltons (1971-1981), when the series ended, Waite continued to work in television and film. Following long-held political aspirations, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Congress in 1990 and 1998. He died on February 13, 2014, at age 85.
Early Life and Education
The eldest of five children, Ralph Waite was born in White Plains, New York, on June 22, 1928, to Esther Mitchell and Ralph H. Waite. After graduating from high school, young Ralph joined the U.S. Marines and served for two years between 1946 and 1948. He then entered Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree.
In 1951, Waite met and married Beverly Hall, who inspired him to go into social work in New York's Westchester County. Bureaucratic barriers and the indifference of his superiors discouraged him, however, so Waite quit to enter Yale Divinity School. Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, he soon found himself at odds with church protocol and disenchanted with the hypocrisy he saw in his fellow clerics.
Waite eventually found a position as a religious editor for book publisher Harper & Row. He also became active in politics, picketing for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
By the time Waite was 30, other demons in his life had begun to reveal deeper problems, and he went through a period of deep soul-searching. He began taking acting lessons in 1960, making his professional debut in the off-Broadway production of The Balcony. He began drinking around this same time, starting a battle with addiction that would last for the next 14 years. By 1965, Waite was starring opposite Faye Dunaway in the play Hogan's Goat—a role that brought him both critical acclaim and self-confidence.
Waite met with tragedy in 1964 when his 10-year-old daughter, Sharon, died of leukemia. After Waite's marriage to Hall ended in 1969, he traveled to Hollywood, California, where he found small bit parts in films such as Cool Hand Luke (1967). He also continued his stage work, appearing in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and the Shakespearean classics Hamlet and Twelfth Night.
Ralph Waite caught a big break in 1970, landing the part of Carl Dupea, Robert Dupea's (Jack Nicholson) brother, in Five Easy Pieces. More critical acclaim for the actor followed, and in turn so did many offers. In 1972, Waite was cast in the role that would forever define him as an actor, of patriarch John Walton Sr. on the immensely popular television series The Waltons, which told the story of a hardworking family living in Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II. Over its nine-year run (1971-81), The Waltons earned high ratings and several Emmy Awards.
Not wanting to be forever identified as John Walton, however, Waite extended his talents into other projects, including the lead in the film The Secret Life of John Chapman (1976) and the role of Slater on the blockbuster miniseries Roots (1977), for which the actor received an Emmy nomination. In 1980, Waite wrote, produced, directed and distributed the film On the Nickel, which told the story of a recovering alcoholic who seeks out a friend on Los Angeles' Skid Row.
During this same time, in 1977, Waite entered his second marriage, to Kerry Shear Waite. The union didn't last long, however, ending in 1981. After The Waltons ended that same year, the actor continued to work in film, theater and TV, including a number of Waltons TV movies.
In 1982, Waite married his third wife, Linda East, who would remain with the actor until his death in 2014.
Run for Congressional Seat
In 1990, Waite acted upon long-held political ambitions and ran for a seat in U.S. Congress as a Democrat in Riverside County, California's 37th District. He ultimately lost the race, however, to GOP incumbent Al McCandless. In 1998, Waite was a late candidate for the seat left vacant by Sonny Bono, who had died in a skiing accident.
Before deciding to run, Waite had signed on to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in New Jersey. Committed to both, the actor-turned-politician endeavored to do both, traveling on Sunday to California to campaign and then traveling back to New Jersey on Tuesday. He was ultimately defeated by Bono's widow, Mary Bono.
Following the race, Waite continued to appear in TV roles, occasionally in guest spots on shows such as the legal drama The Practice, HBO's Carnivale and the prime time crime series NCIS and CSI. In 2010, Waite returned to his religious roots and joined the Desert Presbyterian Fellowship in Palm Desert. He also lent his talents to the pulpit, delivering some Sunday sermons.
Ralph Waite died on February 13, 2014, at the age of 85, at his home in Palm Desert, California. He was survived by wife Linda, daughter Kathleen, stepson Liam and three grandchildren.
The acclaimed actor left behind an indelible legacy. "The beauty of life is in people who feel some obligation to enhance life," he once said. "Without that, we're only half alive."
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