Ralph Waite, star of 'The Waltons,' dies

Ralph Waite portrayed the patriarch of the Waltons on the classic TV show. Ralph Waite also appeared more recently on the TV shows 'NCIS' and 'Bones.'

Cliff Lipson/CBS/AP
Ralph Waite had a recurring role on the show 'NCIS.'

Ralph Waite, who played the kind and steady patriarch of a tight-knit rural Southern family on the TV series "The Waltons," died Thursday, his manager said. He was 85.

Waite appeared last year in episodes of the series "NCIS," in which he played the dad of star Mark Harmon's character. He also appeared in "Bones" and "Days of Our Lives."

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

The show, which followed the Waltons' triumphs and setbacks through the Great Depression and World War II, was narrated by its rich-voiced creator, Earl Hamner Jr., who based it on his family memories.

It proved so popular that it overpowered its hit comedy competition, NBC's "The Flip Wilson Show."

His co-stars on Thursday praised both the actor and the man.

"I am devastated to announce the loss of my precious 'papa' Walton, Ralph Waite," said Mary McDonough, who played daughter Erin Walton. "I loved him so much; I know he was so special to all of us. He was like a real father to me. Goodnight Daddy. I love you."

Michael Learned, who played wife Olivia Walton, said she was "devastated" by the death of "a good honest actor and a good honest man."

"He was my spiritual husband," Learned said in a statement. "We loved each other for over forty years. He died a working actor at the top of his game. He was a loving mentor to many and a role model to an entire generation."

Waite, a native of White Plains, New York, 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.

He became an ordained Presbyterian minister and then worked at a publishing house, the paper said, before falling under the spell of acting. Waite appeared on the stage before moving onto the big screen with roles in 1967's "Cool Hand Luke" and 1970's "Five Easy Pieces," in which he played the brother of Jack Nicholson's character.

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

In 1990, Waite ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic challenger to a four-term Republican incumbent.

In 1998, he vied for the congressional seat left open after Republican Sony Bono, another performer who turned to politics, died in a skiing accident. Bono's widow, Mary, won the special election.

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