February 14, 2014
Ralph Waite, a TV father for the ages, passes away
Ralph Waite, a Palm Desert resident known for his role as John Walton Sr. on the 1970s TV series “The Waltons” has died, Waite’s longtime friend Jerry Preece told The Desert Sun.
Waite, 85, died at his Palm Desert home Thursday at about 11 a.m.
Preece, who spent a lot of time with Waite eating at different restaurants and going to the movies, had planned to pick him up at 1 p.m.
When he arrived, he found ambulances and Waite’s wife, Linda Waite.
“She just told me she thought he’d passed,” Preece said.
Linda Waite didn’t immediately respond to phone calls Thursday afternoon.
“We had talked a lot about it...he had been ill on and off lately and had a couple of spells in the hospitals. Everything was just wearing out,” Preece said.
“This last year or two, he had really gotten closer to realizing that his body was wearing out.”
Preece said his friend died of a “tired heart.”
He described Waite as a shy man that had a mischievous, childlike side.
Waite, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1946 attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., on the GI Bill.
He earned his master’s degree from Yale University Divinity School and became an ordained Presbyterian minister.
He later left the ministry and went into publishing with Harper & Row in New York City.
At 33, he sat in on an acting class.
“I said, ‘Let me try a scene,’ and I fell in love with it,” Waite told The Desert Sun in 2010.
He made his stage debut in 1960 in a production of “The Balcony” at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
He continued performing in Broadway and off-Broadway plays while also landing parts in high-profile movies, including “Cool Hand Luke” and “Five Easy Pieces.”
Waite’s favorite stage role was “King Lear, by far,” he said.
In 1971, he was called out to Hollywood to work on “The Waltons,” an hourlong drama about a rural Virginia family struggling through the Great Depression.
Waite — who was about 40 years sober at the time of his death — was an alcoholic when he first began shooting “The Waltons.”
It didn’t take long for Waite to realize he was living a life contradictory to the role of the hardworking, reliable father he was playing on TV.
“I was a caring, responsible father to all of these kids,” he said. “But I was drinking the night before and being a drunk on the side. I found a way to get sober.
“Hollywood changed my life,” he said. “It turned me into a human being.”
Ron Celona, founder of the Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, and former artistic director of the Joslyn Center theater in Palm Desert, said he met Waite more than 15 years ago when he volunteered at the center. Later, Celona asked Waite to participate in a Q&A for a Luminary Luncheon at the Coachella Valley Rep.
“What really surprised me from the interview was how candid he was about his struggles in real life and his alcoholism,” said Celona. “That really stuck with me that he was so open in conquering that and what an achievement it was in his lifetime. That was a powerful memory from the interview. Otherwise, he was just a down-to-earth, nice guy that was willing to support CV Rep and Joslyn.”
Though Waite gained popularity for his role on the Depression-era show and then for his role as Mark Harmon’s father, Jackson “Jack” Gibbs, on the popular CBS series NCIS, he established religious and political roots in the Coachella Valley.
In his later years, Waite discovered Spirit of the Desert Presbyterian Fellowship.
“It was just what I was looking for,” Waite said.
“I spent a couple of months reacquainting myself with the Old Testament. ... It’s the root of our religion,” he said.
Waite also made his way onto the political scene in the 1990s.
Waite, a Democrat, entered the political fray in 1990 when he challenged incumbent Republican Congressman Al McCandless, representing the 37th district in Riverside County, losing by 5 percentage points.
Waite said he got involved in politics because “I thought our representative in Congress was not up to par. I ran and lost, but had a great time.”
In 1998, Waite ran in the special election for the unexpired 44th Congressional District seat left vacant when incumbent Republican Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident.
Waite was defeated in that election by Mary Bono, Sonny’s widow.
Waite won the Democratic nomination for the general election in the June primary, but dropped out before the November election.
“Ralph was a very formidable opponent yet I grew to admire him very much. We had some fun with political jesting and jousting but his caring nature and keen wit always made me smile. I am grateful for his contributions to our community, most notably his support of the ABC Recovery Center,” the former congresswoman said in a statement Thursday. “The world has lost a great star and I join our community in remembering a very good man.”
Cathedral City Councilman Greg Pettis was Waite’s spokesman during his political campaign against Bono.
“He was just a wonderful man. Smart, caring, loved people. He just really had a passion for issues that affected everyday folk,” Pettis said. “We could sit and have conversations about everyday issues.”