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Saluting a Showbiz Family Value Icon: The TV Father Figure That Was Ralph Waite

Ralph Waite
Public domain

Once upon a time when there was room for more cultured innocence in American media, there were family TV shows. Instead of alienating and making fun of mid America, Hollywood embraced it. In the late 60s to early 70s, there were a host of homespun sitcoms that celebrated down home fly over state locales. Cow towns hard to find on a map but filled with country characters who were funny and made for good TV. Shows like Petticoat Junction and Green Acres played weekly back when CBS was a go-to station for mature viewers and not the dark TV pastime rub it is today.

By the mid 70s when programming suits decided Nielsen families had had enough of down south programming, as a serious departure The Waltons was the last of these shows on the air. It ran for 9 seasons and included a host of holiday specials. And Ralph Waite, who left us on the 13th, played the saw mill patriarch of this humble mountain family reared in the hills of Virginia. These were salt of the earth folks and the stories revolved around their everyday life. There are no more shows like this on TV and few beloved character actors left like Mr. Waite, a leading man of the most popular family TV show in US history.

Back then TV was more real than a reality show featuring scripts based on the real life family of writer/producer Earl Hamner. Every Thursday night at 9 PM on CBS, Waite was the father figure for an entire generation of TV fans. If you grew up in a broken home, the catharsis that this feel good family hour provided was must see TV back then. As Ralph played a firm yet loving working man who ran a lumber manufacturing business with his family, this was set during the Great Depression and after World War II. And the large cast literally grew up on the show with kids going through puberty and elders turning grey.

Although a theocratic minister with a seminary degree, after a long and varied subsequent career as a prolific TV character actor, Waite would soon go on to dabble in politics but could never quite reinvent himself at the polls to win an election long after appearing in the iconic role of a lifetime. There were various other prime time TV parts off and on and regular roles on soaps like his last one as a reverend on Days of Our Lives. But as a well respected stage actor who went Hollywood on a lark, in life after The Waltons he had nothing left to prove since the quality of his screen presence left no need for typecasting.

He went through a few failed marriages and landed bit parts in theatrical films like 5 Easy Pieces and Cool Hand Luke, but his range was too intimate for 40 foot screens and he belonged on Broadway or on TV as was his fate. Waite was involved in charity social work throughout his life and once financed a movie about Skid Row down 'n outers titled, On The Nickle. Ralph's story exhibits a depth of humanity and a sense of compassion that fit the Waltons credo and he was not a vain Hollywood reveler by any stretch. Benefactor of LA actors organizations, he always found his next job and never stopped working almost until the end.

Somewhere if there is an immortal coil that allows for replaying of visual broadcast images in the afterlife, Ralph Waite's John Walton Sr. will live forever in his TV show that belongs on a waiting area monitor at the pearly gates of heaven. Waite was real people not afraid to be himself as a thespian of classic television. A recovering alcoholic, his weathered persona matched the image of his character on the small screen. If TV was ever real, then The Waltons was as real as it gets. Although a devoutly religious man unlike his TV country mensch alter ego, Ralph never let it get in the way of his Emmy nominated acting. 1928-2014 RIP

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