Share story

LOS ANGELES — Ralph Waite, who played the kind patriarch of a tight-knit rural Southern family on the TV series “The Waltons,” has died, his manager said Thursday. He was 85.

Mr. Waite, who lived in Palm Desert, died Thursday, manager Alan Mills said. Mills, who did not know the cause of death, said he was taken aback because the actor had been in good health and still working.

More recently, Mr. Waite was known for roles in “NCIS,” in which he played the father of star Mark Harmon’s character. He also played a recurring character in “Bones” and appeared on “Days of Our Lives.”

“He was a wonderful guy,” Mills said. “He was always kind, always generous, and a joy to work with.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“The Waltons,” which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1981, starred Mr. Waite as John Walton, and Richard Thomas played his oldest son, John-Boy, an aspiring novelist. The gentle family drama was set in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia.

Mr. Waite, a native of White Plains, N.Y., served in the U.S. Marines before earning a bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University and a master’s degree from Yale University Divinity School, according to a 2010 profile by The Desert Sun.

He became a Presbyterian minister and then worked at a publishing house, the paper said, before falling under the spell of acting. He appeared on the stage before moving onto the big screen with roles in “Cool Hand Luke” and “Five Easy Pieces,” in which he played the brother of Jack Nicholson’s character.

Mr. Waite received an Emmy nomination for “The Waltons” and another for his performance in the ABC miniseries “Roots.”

His role as a steady TV dad in the CBS drama was in contrast to his personal life that was undercut by alcoholism, Mr. Waite told The Desert Sun.

“I was a caring, responsible father to all of these kids. But I was drinking the night before and being a drunk on the side,” he said, adding: “I found a way to get sober.”

In 1990, he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic challenger to a four-term Republican incumbent for the congressional district that included Riverside, Palm Springs and Palm Desert. In 1998, he vied for the congressional seat left open after Republican Sony Bono died in a skiing accident. Bono’s widow, Mary, won the special election.

He is survived by his third wife, Linda, two daughters and a stepson.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.