‘The Waltons: Ralph Waite Explained to Cast How Show Prompted Him to Get Sober

by Anna Dunn

Being on The Waltons encouraged actor Ralph Waite to begin the difficult process of getting sober. The John Walton Sr. actor struggled with alcohol addiction for years before encountering the cast of the show.

Waite passed away in 2014 at 85 years old. He had an enduring friendship with many on the cast of The Waltons and went on to play multiple roles in other films and series. For instance, he played the father of leading character Jethro Gibbs on NCIS. But The Waltons is where he really got a new chance.

“He credited the show for being the reason he got sober,” Mary-Ellen actress Judy Norton told Closer Weekly in 2017. “He said, ‘I sat there one day at the kitchen table with all you kids and I felt like such a fake.’ He took himself to AA and got sober.”

Waite Later Helped a Co-Star Get Sober

While Michael Learned and Ralph Waite played husband and wife, they never took a romantic step in their relationship. They did, however, have a deep love for each other and tried to help each other when they could. When Waite was going to AA, he had an important talk with the Olivia actress.

Learned was recently divorced and was a single mother of three teenagers when she landed the role on The Waltons. At the time, she was struggling. Waite learned that Learned went to her audition for the show hungover.

“I said, ‘I’ll go and be supportive for you.’ Because he said, ‘I’m going to AA.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful. You really need it.’ He grabbed me by the shoulders, and he said, ‘I think you should come.’ And I’m like, ‘Me?’” Learned described to Smashing Interviews.

But it worked, and Learned went along with him and they both got the help they needed.

Ralph Waite was Different with all the Kids on ‘The Waltons’

One thing Judy Norton loved about Ralph Waite was how he had different relationships with each of the kids. He treated everyone like they were their own independent person. Apparently, he was even good with babies on set.

“He was always terrific with the babies,” Norton said in a recent video in her Behind the Scenes of The Waltons series. “I loved watching him. His interaction with them was so special – as it was with each one of us. And he had a different relationship with each one of the children. And I loved that as well.”

He was also quite the jokester with the kids. According to Judy Norton, he’d tell some “off-color” jokes or burst into song, anything to get the kids to laugh. A lot of episodes of The Waltons dealt with some heavy topics, but Waite always liked to keep things light when the cameras were off.

Many of the kids looked at Waite as a sort of second father figure. This was true for Ben actor Eric Scott. Scott, who had a father and a stepfather, said that Waite was like a third father to him. He also described him as incredibly talented and wonderfully unpredictable.

Its thanks to The Waltons that learned took the steps he needed to get well. He was even able to pay it forward, helping his co-star do the same. It was a truly brave step by a man whose acting brought people joy for decades.