Ralph Waite was born in White Plains, New York on June 22, 1928. Educated at Bucknell University where he graduated with a BA degree, Waite existed rather aimlessly as a young adult while trying to find his way in the world. Occupations came and went, including social worker, religious editor for Harper & Row, and even Presbyterian minister after spending three years at the Yale School of Divinity. At age 30, however, he began to study acting and found his true life’s passion.
Waite made his professional NY debut in a 1960 production of “The Balcony” at the Circle in the Square and was seen on Broadway in “Blues for Mister Charlie” before earning fine reviews in 1965 alongside Faye Dunaway in “Hogan’s Goat”. This was enough to encourage him to move West where he began collecting bit parts in prestigious movies, including Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). One of those films, the coming-of-age Last Summer (1969) starred an up-and-coming talent named Richard Thomas, who, of course, would figure prominently in Waite’s success story in years to come. Waite continued to thrive as well on the stage appearing in both contemporary plays (“The Trial of Lee Harvey Osward”) as well as Shakespearean classics (Claudius in “Hamlet” and Orsino in “Twelfth Night”).
Stardom came for him in the form of the gentle, homespun Depression-era series The Waltons (1971). In the TV-movie pilot, the roles of John and Olivia Walton were played by Andrew Duggan and Patricia Neal. The Earl Hamner Jr. series, however, would welcome Waite along with Michael Learned, and make both, as well as Richard Thomas playing their son John-Boy, household names. Waite also directed several episodes of the series during the nine seasons. Throughout the seventies, he strove to expand outside his Walton patriarchal casting with other TV mini-movie endeavors. Those included Roots (1977), for which he received an Emmy nomination, the title role in The Secret Life of John Chapman (1976), OHMS (1980), Angel City (1980) and The Gentleman Bandit (1981). He also appeared in a few films including On the Nickel (1980) which he wrote and directed.
Throughout the run of the series, Waite continued to revert back to his theater roots from time to time. Notable was his role as Pozzo in Waiting for Godot (1977), which was televised by PBS, and a return to Broadway with “The Father” in 1981. Waite also founded the Los Angeles Actors Theatre in 1975 and served as its artistic director.
The Waltons (1971), which earned him an Emmy nomination, ended in 1981 and Waite ventured on to other TV character roles during the 80s and 90s but less visibly. In his second TV series The Mississippi (1982), which was produced by his company Ralph Waite Productions, he played a criminal lawyer who abandoned his practice (almost) for a leisurely life captaining a riverboat. It lasted only a year. There have been other more recent theater excursions including “Death of a Salesman” (1998), “The Gin Game” (1999), “Ancestral Voices (2000) and “This Thing of Darkness” (2002). He also had a recurring role on the offbeat HBO series Carnivàle (2003) and in 2009 began putting time in on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives (1965) as Father Matt. Waite was able to carry with him a certain grizzled, rumpled, craggy-faced, settled-in benevolence, although he was quite capable of villainy. He always seemed more comfortable in front of the camera wearing a dusty pair of work clothes than a suit. He continued to act well into his 80s, most notably playing the father of Mark Harmon on NCIS (2003).
For many years, Waite had held passionate political ambitions. He twice ran unsuccessfully for a Congressional seat — in 1990 and 1998. A Palm Desert resident during his second attempt, the 70-year-old Californian was a Democratic hopeful for a seat left vacant by the late Sonny Bono after his fatal skiing accident in 1998. He was ultimately defeated by Bono’s widow, Mary Bono.
Waite died in Palm Desert, California on February 13, 2014, at age 85. He is survived by his third wife, Linda East, whom he married in 1982 and two daughters from his first marriage.
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