‘The Waltons’: Star Was a Minister Before Hollywood Success

by Clayton Edwards

“The Waltons” was an iconic part of American television. The show focused on a family in rural Appalachia during the great depression and WWII. However, instead of playing the lives of rural Americans for laughs, the series showed the grit and familial bond prevalent in rural America.

The strength of the family came from both the writing behind the scenes and the actors chosen to portray them on-screen. However, one of those stars almost passed up an acting career. Instead, he might have been a minister.

Ralph Waite, who played the patriarch of the Walton family, was a minister before he was an actor. Had it not been for a close friend’s urging, he may have never stepped in front of a camera.

According to Waite’s obituary posted by “The Guardian” upon his death in 2014, the Waltons’ patriarch was a graduate of Yale University Divinity School. He earned a master’s degree from the institution. Upon completion of his master’s degree, he became the minister at the United Church of Christ on Fishers Island and in Garden City, New York. After a short time, he left the position. He cited hypocrisy and corruption within the church for his resignation.

Waite stayed in the realm of religious occupations, though. After leaving the church, he went to Harper & Row Publishing. There, he edited and managed public relations for religious books.

Waite’s Road to “The Waltons”

While working at Harper & Row, Waite’s marriage was going downhill. At the same time, his drinking was getting out of hand. It was at that point that a close friend of Ralph’s suggested that he give acting a shot. After some convincing, he decided to go for it. Waite trained at the Actors Studio in New York under Lee Strasberg. Soon, he was ready to take the stage. His stage debut was in 1960. He was still a long way from “The Waltons” but the seed was planted.

Waite had several Broadway roles before moving to screen acting. His first film role was in “Cool Hand Luke.” From there, he went on to many roles in both television and film. By the time Ralph Waite took the role of John Walton, Sr. he was a seasoned actor of both stage and screen. His experience and talent paid off. His character may not have been the main focus of the show but he was the pillar of strength for the Walton family.

Waite’s role on “The Waltons” changed his life. Not only did it give him almost a decade of exposure to the public but it also helped him settle down. At one point during his time on the iconic show, Ralph took a look at his life and realized that he was completely at odds with the loving father he portrayed. It was this realization that made him get sober. He quit drinking, in part, to square his real life with that of John Walton.

Decades after the show ended, Ralph Waite returned to organized religion. In 2010 he became the minister of Spirit of the Desert Presbyterian Fellowship.

Ralph Waite died at the age of 85 on February 13, 2014.