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Ralph Waite, patriarch on 'The Waltons,' dies at 85

Image: Ralph Waite Everett Collection
Ralph Waite on "The Waltons."

Ralph Waite, the actor known to millions as the kind patriarch John Walton, Sr. on "The Waltons," died at home in Palm Desert, Calif., on Thursday, NBC News confirms. He was 85.

On "The Waltons," which aired on CBS in the '70s for nine seasons, Waite and his co-stars' characters famously ended the show with a series of goodnights; after the news of Waite's death, some of those same actors said their goodbyes. 

"Ralph was a good honest actor and a good honest man," Michael Learned, who played wife Olivia said. "He was my spiritual husband. You can't fake the affection we had for each other. 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. I'm devastated."

I loved Ralph very much," actor Richard Thomas, who played John Boy on the show, said in a statement. "He was a kind and funny man with a great social consciousness and a big heart. And he was one of the most uncompromisingly honest men and actors I've ever known — a great example for a young performer. Goodnight, Daddy."

Mary Beth McDonough, who played daughter Erin said, "I am devastated to announce the loss of my precious 'papa' Walton, Ralph Waite. 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."

Waite’s longtime friend Jerry Preece told the Desert Sun newspaper that he had planned to pick up Waite Thursday aftrenoon, but when he arrived he found ambulances at Waite's house. The actor's wife, Linda, told Preece "she thought he’d passed."

"We had talked a lot about it ... he had been ill on and off lately and had a couple of spells in hospitals. Everything was just wearing out," Preece told the Sun.

Wearing out or not, the actor remained busy until 2013, with a regular role on "Days of Our Lives" and guest spots on "Bones" and "NCIS." 

"Everyone at 'NCIS' is deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague Ralph Waite," the show's cast and crew said in a statement provided to TODAY. "Ralph was family to us, a tremendous talent and a very special man. We truly cherish the time we had with him. Our hearts and prayers go out to his loved ones." 

"NCIS" co-star Pauley Perrette tweeted her condolences. 

Waite served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1946-1948, and attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. He later earned a master’s degree from Yale University Divinity School and became an ordained minister.

After serving in three different local parishes, Waite left the ministry. "I was young and impetuous," Waite said of that time in his life. He moved to New York City and worked in publishing in New York, where at 33, he sat in on an acting class. “I said, ‘Let me try a scene,’ and I fell in love with it,” Waite told the Desert Sun in 2010.

Waite's acting career took shape then, performing in on- and off-Broadway plays while also landing smaller parts in notable films like "Cool Hand Luke" and "Five Easy Pieces." Although those roles, and parts in miniseries such as "Roots," are substantial enough on their own, it's Waite's role on "The Waltons" that cemented his place in television history.

Before his death, Waite reflected on his past, talking about his struggles with alcoholism, and his journey from divinity school to his career in acting, settling on the principles that meant the most to him. 

"A self-centered, selfish life is not one worth living," Waite said. "One of service is essential. Taking some responsibility for myself and for my life, trying to be loving to those around me, those are the things that mean the most to me as the years have gone by."

Waite had two daughters, Kathleen and Suzanne. Since 1984 he was married to his third wife, Linda East. 

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