Actor Ralph Waite, best known for his role as patriarch John Walton Sr. on the popular television series The Waltons, died on Thursday, February 13. He was 85.
Waite dabbled in a number of professions before settling on a career as a performer. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1946-48. He then enrolled at Bucknell University, where he met his first wife, Beverly, to whom he was married from 1951-66 and with whom he had three children. After graduating from Bucknell in 1952, he had a short stint as a social worker before earning his master's degree at Yale Divinity School. Waite then served as a Presbyterian minister on Fishers Island and in Garden City, New York. Dismayed by what he saw as the hypocrisy of the church, he left the ministry to edit religious books for Harper & Row.
Waite began acting at age 30 and made his professional stage debut in the 1960 off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Balcony, understudying all of the lead roles. In 1965, he made his first significant stage appearance in an off-Broadway production of Hogan's Goat, for which he received critical praise. Before landing his leading role as John Walton Sr. on The Waltons, a role he kept for nine seasons, from 1972-81, Waite appeared in a number of popular films including Cool Hand Luke and Five Easy Pieces. Waite's second marriage, to Kerry Shear in 1977, ended in divorce in 1981.
Waite appeared in eight Broadway productions throughout his varied career, including Marathon '33, Blues for Mister Charlie, Traveller Without Luggage, Slapstick Tragedy, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, The Watering Place, The Father, and An American Daughter. While continuing to perform, Waite became involved in politics in the early 1990s, making unsuccessful runs for Congress in California as a Democratic candidate in 1990 and 1998. He made his final television appearances on the popular NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives, returning to his religious roots in the recurring role of kindly priest Father Matt through 2014. Waite married a third time in 1982 to Linda East, who survives him along with two of his children from his first marriage.