Henry Fonda Almost Played John Walton on ‘The Waltons’

by Jennifer Shea
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Fans of “The Waltons” likely can’t imagine anyone besides Ralph Waite in the role of John Walton Sr. But it turns out the role almost went to Henry Fonda, star of “The Grapes of Wrath,” “12 Angry Men” and “On Golden Pond.”

Henry Fonda Considers the Role

“The Waltons” was in the preliminary stages of casting when Fonda entered into talks to play the role of John Walton, Showbiz Cheat Sheet reports. 

Lee Rich, the showrunner for “The Waltons” and other hit shows, said Fonda looked into the role, but concluded the show wasn’t the right fit for him.

“We showed the pilot to Henry Fonda,” Rich said. “And afterward he turned around to me and said: ‘What do you want me for? The family is the star. You don’t need me.’“ 

Film critic Shawn Levy told NPR in 2005 that Fonda took a “less cerebral” approach to acting than other actors. His was instinctual, “sort of giving yourself over to the material rather than trying to find yourself in it,” Levy said.

“Fonda had a great deal of range, and he was very willing to take on the dark side of a character, even a character that was ostensibly a good guy,” he added.

Ralph Waite Wasn’t Sure About the Role, Either

There wasn’t much darkness to John Walton Sr. And Waite filled out the role nicely. But Waite himself had his doubts about auditioning for “The Waltons.” 

According to Wide Open Country, Waite was reluctant to commit to one television show for many years. He almost didn’t go to the audition. But his agent told Waite the show probably wouldn’t sell, so he had nothing to worry about.

The network gave “The Waltons” a bad time slot. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop the show from becoming a hit and lasting through nine seasons.

As it happened, Waite lucked out and got the part. He became a star on the show, and went on to act in “Roots,” “Days of Our Lives” and “NCIS.”

“[People] tell me that I was their surrogate father, the one who brought them up,” Waite told Entertainment Weekly shortly before his death. 

Outsider.com