Old School Americana & Nostalgia


‘The Waltons’: How the Classic Series Helped Ralph Waite ‘Cope With Life’

‘The Waltons’: How the Classic Series Helped Ralph Waite ‘Cope With Life’

For Ralph Waite, his role on The Waltons started a journey that would help him grow up emotionally a whole lot. When he took on the role of John Walton, family patriarch of the CBS family drama, it was a challenge. Yet even he didn’t know what type of change it would have in his life.

When Waite first started playing John, he did so in a way that presented fatherhood in a new light. He looked for guidance in doing so, wanting to be the best role model possible on the show. Yet the real challenge that Waite faced was off-screen.

You see, at the time of the show’s original run, Waite really didn’t have his stuff together. There were times when he would be drinking, a lot, in between scenes. It would cause him to look closer at the type of person he really wanted to be.

When asked about playing John Walton, Waite was quoted as saying, “He’s the good side of me.”

Waite did seek out more patience in his own life. It was something that was sorely missing. That quality, too, can be seen in John Walton’s interactions.

It might be something he was missing while growing up. Waite’s father was a construction engineer known for being quite impatient. These growing-up factors really played a number in Waite’s own psyche growing up.

Ralph Waite of ‘The Waltons’ Always Got Family-Friendly Roles

In an interview from 1977, Waite said that it looked like he picked up family-oriented roles. While it caused him some discomfort at times, there was something different about The Waltons. Apparently, Waite saw this as a type of safe space for him to live and work.

Thanks to the show’s success, Waite did pick up more acting roles in his career. More “importantly”, this time in his life allowed Waite to grow up a little more. “Forced me to cope with life,” Waite said. 

Because of that awareness about his own life, Waite had to start looking at his drinking more seriously. It was not a good look for him to get hammered with the show’s child cast around, too.

Reportedly, producers of the show never publicly talked about Waite’s problems. Waite knew he had a problem, MeTV reports. Yet Waite felt like that he never had the support to fix it. That all changed when he joined the cast of The Waltons.

“I suppose, as the saying goes, I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Waite said. “More than that, though, it was the show that had a profound effect on me. I simply came to the conclusion that I couldn’t go around loaded all the time if I was to act the part of a kind, responsible parent to so many children.”

Waite’s Work Led Him To Stop Drinking

In fact, tackling the role of John Walton would lead Waite to leave his life of drinking. Waite learned about the power of self-discipline and humility.

“At age 43, I was suddenly sober,” Waite said. “But emotionally, I was still the same age I had been when I started drinking. Age 17. All those years in between I had allowed liquor to keep me walled off from making decisions, commitments  — in a state of continued immaturity.”

Waite admitted in talking with The Tampa Bay Times that an empty feeling wasn’t part of his life. He would feed that emptiness with a night of drinking. Thankfully, his work and home families helped him to feel complete.

“It wasn’t easy to have my role as a father figure be merely supportive of Richard Thomas’ part of John-Boy (Richard Thomas),” Waite said. “But that’s the way the show developed and it was a situation I had to learn to live with. Managing that feat helped me grow, helped me mature. So did being thrown into a situation where I had to deal with a ‘whole’ family of people on such an intimate level for so long.”