There was little like the family-oriented, gentle-spirited "The Waltons" when it debuted on CBS in 1972. The show was based on "Spencer's Mountain," a novel by Earl Hamner, Jr., drawn largely from his upbringing in rural Virginia. It soon became a surprise hit and ran nine seasons through 1981. It's breakout star was Richard Thomas, who played the clan's earnest eldest son, John-Boy, an aspiring writer whose middle-aged voice narrated each episode. But Mr. Waite was praised as well for his earthy, natural characterization of a father trying to do his best to guide a large brood through troubling times. He also directed several episodes during the series' run.
Ralph Waite, born June 22, 1928, in White Plains, NY, came to acting relatively late in life after taking up and casting off a series of different life paths. He served in the Marines from 1946 to 1948 and thereafter took up social work. Tiring of that, he attended Yale University Divinity School and became a Presbyterian minister, serving at two different parishes. He left the church to become an editor of religious books at Harper & Row. Only then, well into his 30s, did he decide to give acting a try.
He put in an early season at Peninsula Players, a Wisconsin-based summer theatre, in 1963. Later that same year, he landed his first Broadway role, in Marathon '33. He followed that with parts in James Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie, Anouilh's Traveling Without Luggage, Tennessee Williams' Slapstick Tragedy, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and Lyle Kessler's The Watering Hole. A number of these ran for just a handful of performances.
By 1965, he was appearing Off-Broadway. His first role was Mark Van Doren's The Last Days of Lincoln, which lasted a single performance. Mr. Waite had better luck with his next role, in William Alfred's Hogan's Goat, which was well-received and ran for 18 months at the Theatre at St. Clement's Church.
He was Claudius to Martin Sheen's Hamlet in a 1967 Hamlet at the Public Theater, directed by Joseph Papp, and Orsino in Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater, also piloted by Papp. Upon moving to Hollywood, he won some small supporting roles in films of the late '60s and early '70s such as "Cool Hand Luke," "Five Easy Pieces" and "Kid Blue."
Following "The Waltons," he had little trouble finding work on television—he had recurring roles on "The Days of Our Lives," "Murder One," "Bones" and "NCIS"—though he never matched the success of that series. He also returned to the theatre. He played the title role in Strindberg's The Father at Circle in the Square in 1981. Off-Broadway, in the 1990s, he acted in Larry Kramer's The Destiny of Me, Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta and John Guare's Lake Hollywood. In 2002, he appeared in This Thing of Darkness by Craig Lucas.
Ralph Waite never quite distanced himself from his "Waltons" identity as the ultimate father. In 2000, he delivered an Off Off-Broadway turn as the theatre's most famous father—although, in this case, a frightfully unwise one—as King Lear. The production was with the tiny Aulis Collective for Theater and Media at INTAR53.
Later in life, Mr. Waite developed an interest in politics. He ran unsuccessfully for Congreess in California in 1990 and twice in 1998.
He is survived by his wife, Linda East, and two children. Two earlier marriages, to Beverly Waite and Kerry Shear Waite, ended in divorce.