Long After ‘The Waltons,’ Ralph Waite Starred Alongside Kevin Costner in Classic 1990s Film

by Suzanne Halliburton

Ralph Waite was one of America’s favorite fathers when he portrayed John Walton Sr. on The Waltons. The role was Waite’s first big TV break.

On the beloved show, Waite and Olivia (Michael Learned) raised seven kids through the Great Depression and into World War II. Waite took a winding route to acting, coming to his chosen profession when he was approaching middle age. He first served in the Marines, then he was a social worker who also became an ordained minister.

He drew on all the skills he learned in real life for his fictional role in The Waltons.

But his role on The Waltons wasn’t the only time he played a father figure in a significant production. You might remember him as Kevin Costner’s dad on The Bodyguard. He portrayed Herb Farmer in the 1992 movie.

Costner portrayed Frank Farmer, the former Secret Service agent turned bodyguard. He was hired to protect Whitney Houston’s pop star character Rachel Marron. It was Houston’s first movie role. Costner was the star and a producer and really pushed for Houston to be cast as Rachel. Costner also said he modeled his character off of Steve McQueen, who was supposed to be in the movie when it was first pitched in the 1970s.

(Photo by Kypros/Getty Images)

Waite Was In Super Successful Waltons and Bodyguard

The movie was the second-highest-grossing film of 1992, trailing only Aladdin. And The Bodyguard still is making news. Houston’s music video of “I Will Always Love You” reached 1 billion views on YouTube a year ago this month. And last month, news broke that there are plans for a reimagining of The Bodyguard.

After his movie with Costner, Waite returned to his role in The Waltons. There was a Thanksgiving Reunion movie in 1993 and a Walton Wedding in 1995.

And late in his career, Waite played another father on a show that’s still very popular today. In fact, his character was brought up Monday night as Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) said goodbye to NCIS. Waite portrayed Gibbs’ father, Jackson. When Gibbs was talking to McGee in the final scene of the episode, he talked about how he and his dad went fishing together before Gibbs headed to basic training. They vowed to fish together every summer, but never did so again.

Waite’s character was in eight episodes. His last appearance was in the episode Better Angels, which ran Nov. 5, 2013. He died three months later at age 85.

But his fans remembered him for his role as Pa on The Waltons. Michael Learned said when he died:

“He was my spiritual husband,” Learned said. “We loved each other for over 40 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. I’m devastated.”