The Waltons saved Ralph Waite from a dark place during the first season
John Walton was patient, kind and an incredibly understanding dad — something Ralph Waite, the man who played the role, was not. John Walton was the beloved TV dad of seven on The Waltons (1972): John-Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Erin, Benjamin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth.
In real life, Ralph Waite was the father to two, but before The Waltons he struggled to know what being a good dad meant. John Walton was the type of dad that Waite wanted to be outside of The Waltons. Waite added: “He’s the good side of me.”
As a parent in real life, Waite said he never came close to having the type of patience that John Walton had onscreen for nine seasons. Whether fictional kids or not, we aren’t sure how John could remain calm either!
Waite’s dad was a construction engineer who was known for being a very impatient man. With the lack of a father figure growing up, Waite had to learn many life lessons through Earl Hamner Jr.’s writing on the series.
According to a 1977 interview with The Tampa Bay Times, Waite said he always seemed to be given \family-oriented roles. He believed an actor would get stale if they stay where it’s safe, but for him, The Waltons was his comfort blanket and he had no intention of leaving the family.
The Waltons provided Waite with many professional opportunities, but it also gave him a chance to be a new man. And as he said it: “Forced me to cope with life.”
According to the interview, during Waite’s first two months filming The Waltons he was a wild man that would drink between scenes and have three to four cocktails just on a lunch break alone.
Although The Waltons producers never publicly addressed his issue with drinking, Waite knew it for himself. He was aware of his problem, he just never had the support to fix it, until he joined The Walton family.
“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.”
Becoming John Walton was so impactful for Waite that he quit drinking and remained sober. He said the series not only forced him into using self-discipline, but it also made him come face-to-face with humility — and with other people’s egos.
“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.”
At the time of this interview, Waite said he no longer felt the emptiness that he did when he was drinking. The Waltons family and his own family made him whole again.
“It wasn’t easy to have my role as a father figure be merely supportive of Richard Thomas’ part of John-Boy” Waite admitted. “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 inimate level for so long.”