The former-ordained-minister-turned-actor died Thursday of a "tired heart," says a friend

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated February 13, 2014 09:20 PM
Credit: CBS/Getty

Ralph Waite, known to millions as John Walton Sr. on the warmhearted 1970s TV series The Waltons – and, more recently, as the Mark Harmon character’s father, Jackson “Jack” Gibbs, on the CBS hit NCIS – died at his Palm Desert home at about 11 a.m. Thursday, according to the Desert Sun. He was 85.

The paper reports that his longtime friend, Jerry Preece, showed up for a lunch and movie date only to find ambulances and Waite’s wife, Linda Waite, at the house.

“She just told me she thought he d passed,” said Preece, who ascribed his friend’s death to a “tired heart. This last year or two, he had really gotten closer to realizing that his body was wearing out.”

Reacting to the news of her costar’s death, Michael Learned, who played Olivia Walton, Waite’s onscreen wife on The Waltons, told PEOPLE Thursday evening, “I’m a little emotional right now. It’s such a shock.”

Of Waite’s work, she said, “I don’t think people realized the skill behind what he was doing. He had such a great heart. … Ralph had suffered a lot of great tragedy in his life, but he always overcame it and was there for everyone. I just will miss him terribly. We were kind of like a celibate husband and wife. We never crossed that line, but we were dear, loving friends.”

Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen Walton, the eldest daughter, told PEOPLE, “We were a real family. It wasn’t just a group of people who got together and worked and then went our separate ways. We have all stayed in contact very much over the years. We were all together again just a matter of months ago. From the beginning there was a special quality to the group. When we were on the set we looked to Ralph onset as a father figure.”

‘A Show-Off, a Dreamer, a Storyteller’

The son of a construction engineer, Waite was raised in suburban White Plains, N.Y., in an environment that was “very secular, non-artistic. I was never taken to a play or concert or church. Yet I was a show-off, a dreamer, a storyteller,” he told PEOPLE in 1977.

After graduating from Bucknell, Ralph met and married Beverly Hall, the daughter of religious writer Clarence Hall. She introduced him to the writings of theological heavies like Niebuhr and Tillich and inspired him to become a New York City social worker, en route to the Yale Divinity School.

He and Beverly had three daughters by 1960, when he earned his degree and became a minister in the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ. But Ralph got frustrated when he found his sense of “social justice” too rigorous for his congregation.

He had been drinking, and the problem greatly intensified after 1964, when his oldest daughter died and he left the ministry. (Though, according to the Desert Sun, he discovered the Spirit of the Desert Presbyterian Fellowship.)

A chance visit to an acting class hooked him, and Waite took jobs ranging from religious book editor at Harper & Row to bartender while he searched for parts. Slowly he made a name Off-Broadway, particularly with Joe Papp’s company, then began to land movie roles, including Five Easy Pieces (as Jack Nicholson’s brother).

Besides acting, Waite also tried politics, unsuccessfully running for Congress as a Democrat three times in the district near his desert home.

He and Beverly were divorced in 1969. He was then married to Kerry Shear, from 1977 to 1981. He and the former Linda East wed in 1982. Besides two survived daughters, he also leaves a stepson, Liam Waite, who is an actor.

Additional reporting by CHAMP CLARK