Waltons star Ralph Waite dies at 85

Ralph Waite as John Walton Sr Waite won an Emmy for his role as the Southern family patriarch in The Waltons

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Actor Ralph Waite, best known for playing John Walton Sr - Papa Walton - in the long-running TV show The Waltons, has died at the age of 85.

"Ralph was a good honest actor and a good honest man," said Michael Learned, who played his on-screen wife Olivia.

"He was my spiritual husband. 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."

An ordained Presbyterian minister, social worker and former Marine, Waite turned to acting in the early 1960s, starring on Broadway opposite Faye Dunaway in Hogan's Goat.

Small screen roles followed, working alongside the likes of Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson in films such as Cool Hand Luke and Five Easy Pieces.

But it was with The Waltons, which began in 1972, that Waite found global fame.

The actor, already in his mid-40s played Depression-era homesteader John Walton - the father of seven, living in rural Virginia, who worked hard to look after his family while imparting wisdom and authority to his homespun brood.

The Waltons starring Ralph Waite began in 1972

"I am devastated to announce the loss of my precious 'papa' Walton," said Mary McDonough, who played daughter Erin Walton. "I loved him so much; I know he was so special to all of us. He was like a real father to me. Goodnight Daddy. I love you."

The show was an unexpected hit. Running for nine seasons, it prompted a series of movie spin-offs and found viewers around the world.

"Somehow, we struck a vein in the life of the world," Waite, who directed 16 episodes of the series, said in an interview last year with local paper The Lancaster News.

He once recalled a woman who told the actor she was inspired to go to college by the paternal figure of John Walton, Sr.

"She said, 'Now, I'm a lawyer and I don't think I would be if I hadn't seen that show,'" Waite said. "I'm still amazed by that. It happens all the time. The whole thing is still amazing."

Ralph Waite as Jackson Gibbs in NCIS episode 'The Namesake' Waite played Jackson Gibbs in a handful of episodes of NCIS last year

The actor received an Emmy nomination for his role in The Waltons, and another for his performance in the 1977 mini-series Roots, playing Slater, the first mate of a slave ship.

In 1975 he founded the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, donating $50,000 to get the company off the ground.

Simultaneously he ran for Congress in California three times as a Democrat - albeit unsuccessfully - and, mindful of his own struggles with alcohol, became involved in an alcohol and drug recovery programme.

He remained a working actor until late last year, starring in '90s big screen hits such as Cliffhanger and The Bodyguard.

Last year Waite starred in the crime series NCIS, playing the father to Mark Harmon's protagonist. He also made recent appearances in Bones and US soap Days of Our Lives, as Father Matt.

He was married three times, and is survived by two daughters from his first marriage.

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