On Feb. 13, 2014, television audiences lost another iconic and beloved actor. The New York Times reported that Ralph Waite passed away at age 85. Whether you live in New York, Houston, or in Los Angeles, for so many, learning this news evoked an instant reaction similar to the loss of one of your own family members.
Television is a unique communications medium that allows viewers to share a part of an ongoing (often) fictional world where life is pleasant, simple, joyful, or you’re placed into an environment that shields you from long-term pain because a resolution can be reached in as little as an hour or even half hour. The dynamic of the television father and the actors who portray them is serious business.
From TV shows that included father in the title, “Father Knows Best,” “Bachelor Father” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” to shows that revolved around families, featuring a very strong father figure, such as “The Waltons,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Leave it To Beaver,” and even “NCIS” with Mark Harmon playing a father who’d lost a child and adopted the co-workers around him as his ersatz family. Fathers lead. Fathers guide. Fathers issue accolades and discipline with almost even frequency. At least that is how it is on television.
Real life isn’t like that. Maybe your own father wasn’t like the other dads you saw on television. Maybe your dad was so memorable that you might write a book about him. Somewhere in between is the fascination of people searching for fathers to identify with, either as they have one or perhaps as they want to be like one they’ve seen at a distance, every week, on your little television.
In 2004, a TV Guide poll of readers ranked him (Waite) No. 3 on its list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time,” behind Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable (No. 1) on “The Cosby Show” and Lorne Greene’s Ben Cartwright on “Bonanza.”
Interestingly, in 2004, one primary role had defined Waite as a father. As the New York Times noted, it was only because of Waite’s role as John Walton that he was considered a “Greatest TV Dad.” Viewers had nine years and 196 episodes of “The Waltons” to admire and regard Waite’s character John Walton, and yet Waite was more popular in his early career as a stage actor. The medium’s often the thing, as far as making a household name out of a truly great actor.
Waite was such a popular actor that from 2009-2013 Waite appeared as Hank Booth, the grandfather of FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth on three episodes of the ABC-TV procedural, “Bones,” as Seeley’s grandfather whom Hank raised as his own. Also in that same time span, Ralph made 94 appearances as “Father Matt,” a priest, on the NBC daytime soap opera, “Days of Our Lives.”
But wait, there’s more. From 2008-2013 in perhaps his most endearing role, Ralph made 8 appearances as Jackson Gibbs, on TV’s current number one scripted drama. Jackson is father to NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Undoubtedly this role is one of the most important of his career, possibly even more so than playing the family patriarch on “The Waltons." On the tote board, that’s three fathers in three shows on three different networks. That has to be an acting record somewhere.
In further support of his acting ability, many times you might describe the personal Waite as a simple country man, who saw a lot of hard labor in his life, and he surely must be the perfect father, right? Real-world Waite achieved three marriages in his lifetime and his B.A. degree from Bucknell led to “almost three years of divinity school at Yale. Biographical sources report that Waite’s early youth included time “as a social worker, religious editor for publisher Harper & Row, and Presbyterian minister,” more insight into the collected countenance which Waite brought to his roles, whether portraying a minister or father.
The character of Jackson Gibbs has been and is so important to helping define the character of NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. The very thin line between recurring television characters and the actors who portray them was described well many years by the late Sonny Bono, U.S. Congressman, singer/songwriter, and record producer, when he said “Television is a distancing phenomenon. You see us in your home each week; we are a part of your family. You feel like you know us as well as you know members of your own family.” And, Sonny was right.
Poignantly, upon the death of actor-singer-U.S. Congressman Bono, minister-actor-social advocate Waite ran for the seat as a candidate but lost to Sonny’s widow Mary Bono Mack, who served as Congresswoman for 14 years. When you choose to be in the public eye, you may aim for acting at first, but so very often the path to the goal includes rich and relevant side roads you have to traverse before you achieve your dream. Just as importantly the dream of “getting it right” as a father may not come in real life, but it can come across on screen, to the delight of millions of people watching each time. That’s surreal, but true enough.
Particularly through the eyes of Ralph Waite as Jackson Gibbs, the episodes that featured all the rich dialog between Jackson and Jethro spelled out the intense father-son dynamic that came from the mind of “NCIS” creator Donald Bellisario, whose own father, by the way, was named Albert Jethro Bellisario.
Jackson’s character has continued to be expertly extended by show runner and frequent writer, Gary Glasberg. One can only wonder what’s next for “NCIS” without Jackson. Of all of Waite’s appearances on “NCIS,” the 200th episode, “Life Before His Eyes” (Season 9, Episode 14) is perhaps the most important and poignant one to watch for the insight it produces as the backstory develops between Jethro and Jackson. Both silver-haired, blue-eyed strong men, Harmon and Waite, look at one another and say more with looks than with words.
Even beyond the United States, fans of “NCIS” around the world were impacted by the news of Waite’s passing. Jackson Gibbs was gone. In fact, Annie Booker, from Adelaide, South Australia was so moved she created the photo collage shown in this story, in tribute to Waite’s role as Jackson Gibbs. The actor whose real life was never as smooth or joyful as the world he created for all of us, who believed we truly “knew him” from watching him through a digital electronic gateway, has died. The talent of Ralph Waite will be remembered for years to come. The characters he created for us, through the benefit of syndicated television shows, will live on for much longer than that. And you just can’t ask for more than that from any professional. And as the curtain goes down, what’s in order is a final standing ovation for a truly gifted actor, Ralph Waite, with thanks.
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