In Remembrance: Ralph Waite ’56BD Died on February 13 2014

Ralph Harold Waite passed away February 13, 2014, at his home in Palm Desert, California. He was 85. 

Though known today as a stage and television actor, before establishing a career in acting Waite earned a degree at Yale Divinity School and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He served congregations on Long Island and Fisher's Island for a time, then edited religious books for Harper & Row, before embarking on an acting career. 

The Los Angeles Times published a full story on February 13, 2014.

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    Ralph Harold Waite, Jr. ’56 B.D.

    Ralph Harold Waite, Jr., eldest of five children, was born in White Plains, New York, on June 22, 1928, to Ralph H. Waite, a construction engineer, and Esther (née Mitchell) Waite. Following high school, he served with the United States Marine Corps shortly after World War II, from 1946 to 1948. After military service Ralph entered Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on the G.I. Bill, and graduated with the Bachelor of Arts degree. He worked briefly as a social worker and did graduate work at the New School of Social Research in New York City.

    Ralph earned the BD/M.Div. degree in 1956 from Yale Divinity School. He was ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., and served congregations on Fire Island and at Garden City on Long Island.

    Ralph and Beverly Hall, daughter of the religion writer Clarence W. Hall, married in 1951. When Ralph left the ministry in 1959, he, Beverly, and their three children moved to New York City. They lived at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village where, for seven years, Beverly managed the Judson Student House. While employed as a religion editor at Harper & Row publishers, at age 33, Ralph sat in on an acting class: “I said, ‘Let me try a scene,’ and I fell in love with it,” he wrote of it later. He made his stage debut in 1960 in “The Balcony,” at the Circle in the Square Theatre. He made his Broadway debut in Blues for Mister Charlie in 1963, and followed with parts in Hogan’s Goat (1965) and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1967).

    His break in motion pictures was being cast as Alibi in the Paul Newman film, Cool Hand Luke, in 1967. From then until 2011, Ralph was involved as actor, narrator, voice, or director in 34 films. In the 1970s, he appeared opposite Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, and had roles in Lawman, The Grisson Gang, Chato’s Land, and The Stone Killer. Later films included The Bodyguar-and the part of Frank-the helicopter pilot-in 1993’s Cliffhanger.

    Waite was best known for his acting in, and directing of, television series. In 1971, he was called out to Hollywood to work on “The Waltons,” the hour-long drama about a rural Virginia family struggling through the Great Depression that ran from 1971 to 1981. He played the well-remembered lead role of John Walton, Sr., family patriarch, for which he earned an Emmy Award nomination in 1978. He also directed some episodes. He was writer and director of “On the Nickel” (1980), director of “The Mississippi” (1983), and executive producer of “A Good Sport” (1980).

    Waite — later 41 years sober — was an alcoholic when he first began shooting “The Waltons.” It didn’t take long for Waite to realize he was living a life contradictory to the role of the hardworking, reliable father he was playing on TV. “I was a caring, responsible father to all of these kids,” he said. “But I was drinking the night before and being a drunk on the side. I found a way to get sober.” “Hollywood changed my life,” he said. “It turned me into a human being.” Ralph was a longtime volunteer and board member of the ABC Alcohol and Recovery Center in Indio, serving for years as president.
    During his career Ralph participated in fifty television series. He received an Emmy Award nomination in 1977, for the mini-series "Roots." He was a star in the TV series "The Mississippi" (1983-84), a cast member in "Carnival" (2003 to 2005) and in the soap opera "The Days of Our Lives" (2009 to 2013). From 2008 until 2013 he had a recurring role as Jackson Gibbs in the TV series "NCIS."

    Waite scored a personal triumph when he created and “superbly played” the role of Will Kidder in playwright Horton Foote’s “The Young Man from Atlanta,” awarded the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    In the 1980s and '90s Ralph became involved in the politics of California’s Coachella Valley. Describing himself as a moderate Democrat, he said he was spurred on by Czech President Vaclav Havel’s speech to Congress. "I got a sense of how inspiring our democracy and freedom are to other people in the world," Waite told The Times in 1990. "I decided ... this was the occasion to rededicate myself to our political life."
    On three occasions Waite ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California as a Democrat. In 1990, he challenged veteran GOP incumbent Al McCandless in the Riverside County-based 44th district, losing by five percentage points. In 1998, Ralph ran in the special election for the 44th district left vacant by the death of incumbent Sonny Bono. He was defeated by Mary Bono, Sonny's widow, and also lost to her in the November regular election. On October 21, 1991, Waite introduced then-former California Governor Jerry Brown for his speech announcing his candidacy for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.

    Waite was married three times: to Beverly Hall (1951-1966), to Kerry Shear (1977-1981) and to Linda East (1982-2014)—his first two ending in divorce. He and Beverly had three daughters. The eldest, Sharon B. Waite, died of leukemia when she was nine years old, in 1964. One of Ralph's stepsons, Liam Waite, is also an actor.

    After 50 years away from organized religion, Waite returned in 2010 and became an active member of Spirit of the Desert Presbyterian Fellowship in Palm Desert, California, a congregation that shared his progressive religious and political views.

    Along with his brother, Donald Waite, now deceased, and other family members, he established the popular eatery Don and Sweet Sue’s Cafe in Cathedral City.
    Ralph Waite passed away February 13, 2014, at his home in Palm Desert. He was 85. He was buried at the White Plains Rural Cemetery in White Plains, New York alongside the graves of his parents and daughter Sharon.

    Yale University / YDS Convocation & Reunions / 1956—60th Reunion Class / [Class Composite Photo] at
    Dickason , Elly and Jerry G. Dickason, eds. Remembering Judson House (New York: Judson Memorial Church, 2000). U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current. Memorial# 125110563

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