‘The Waltons’: One Lead Actor Once Ran For a Seat in Congress

by Mark Long

“The Waltons” remains one of television’s most-loved families. Patriarch John Walton Sr., played by Ralph Waite, led the extended family and was the tough but fair father everyone wished they had.

Waite was best known for this role, at least until he spent several seasons on “NCIS” as a recurring character. But he also had several careers outside acting, including three runs for Congress in California.

The Many Lives of Ralph Waite

Waite was born in White Plains, N.Y., in 1928. The oldest of five children, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years beginning in 1946. He was a social worker upon graduating from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

Then, he became an ordained Presbyterian minister after earning a master’s degree from Yale University’s Divinity School. In yet another career change, he was a religious editor at book publisher Harper & Row.

At the age of 35, Waite turned to acting full time, first on stage before making the move into films. His early roles included supporting parts in “Cool Hand Luke” and “Five Easy Pieces.” He gained mainstream recognition from 1972-’82 during the nine seasons of “The Waltons.” And while he continued to act, most notably on “NCIS” in the 2000s, his passion for political activism led him to run for Congress multiple times.

Waite Shoots for Washington

In 1990, eight years after “The Waltons” ended, lifelong Democrat Waite decided to run against incumbent Rep. Al McCandless (R) in California’s District 37. He first considered running in 1988, but Waite said the subsequent turning point was hearing Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, the playwright turned politician, deliver a speech to the US Congress in February 1990.

“I got a sense of how inspiring our democracy and freedom are to other people in the world,” Waite told The Los Angeles Times. “I decided … this was the occasion to rededicate myself to our political life.”

Waite lost to McCandless by 5% of the vote, but he ran twice more in 1998 in California. The first time was to fill Sonny Bono’s congressional seat following his untimely death. Waite lost to Republican Mary Bono, Sonny’s widow, in a special election. He then lost to her again just months later in the full election.

Waite’s Personal Struggles

Despite a long history of social and political activism as well as acting success, Waite also dealt with his own demons. Partly due to the death of his daughter from leukemia when she was nine, he struggled with alcoholism throughout his life.

Still, Waite tried to use his experiences to help others as evidenced by the humble yet stirring speech below at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in Salt Lake City.