Thursday, February 13, 2014

Patriarch of 'The Waltons' Passes Away

It's becoming depressingly routine.

Here we are, not quite halfway into February, and celebrities are dying at an alarming rate. The month began with the news of Maximilian Schell's death, which was quickly followed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's death.

A few days later, it was Shirley Temple, followed by Sid Caesar.

And now, Ralph Waite, the father on The Waltons, is dead at 85.

I remember watching The Waltons when it was on during prime time, and I tried to think of an episode that summarized Waite's character, but I couldn't come up with one.

What comes to mind when I think of Waite as John Walton Sr. is not a particular episode but the steadiness of his character within the context of the series, always there for his family, ready to offer advice but not insistent upon it.

He was probably the ideal father, supportive of his children, whatever they wanted to do. He was a faithful husband and a dutiful son. He didn't draw much attention to himself.

Oh, I'm sure there must have been an episode or two when the spotlight was on Daddy Walton. I just don't remember now what it was. Maybe it was a conversation he had with John Boy when he was facing some sort of crisis. The series really was about John Boy, after all. He was the aspiring writer, the young man with his life stretching out in front of him.

But there were episodes in which John Boy wasn't the focus, and it is possible that there was one about John Sr.

He was the only adult in the cast who didn't win at least one Emmy during the series' nine–year run. Richard Thomas, Michael Learned, Ellen Corby and Will Geer were all winners; I'm not even sure Waite was nominated.

Perhaps that is appropriate. When The Waltons was slated to come on the air in 1972, Waite was reluctant to audition for it. He was a stage actor, and he didn't want to be locked into a TV series that might run for several years — even though CBS seemingly tried to make the show fail, scheduling it opposite two popular programs on the rival networks.

His agent persuaded him to do it, telling him he could make a little money before the show was canceled. He wound up staying with it for nine years, demonstrating the kind of personal commitment to his work that his character had to his family.

Outside of his acting career, Waite, a liberal Democrat, sought election to the U.S. House from California three times in the 1990s; he lost each time.

I suspected that he might have won if he lived in another part of California. The southern California district leans Republican even though the state has voted for Democrats for president six straight times. It was represented for a time by Republican Sonny Bono, and Waite lost both the special election and the general election following Bono's death in 1998.