Ma and Pa Walton quietly fell in love behind the scenes of the show
"We had a deep love."
The final appearance of Ralph Waite as John Walton Sr. on The Waltons comes in the final-season episode "The Move." It's an emotional episode, charged with feeling, and it finds John deciding to be the one to take Olivia to Arizona when tuberculosis threatens her health.
In the time that Waite had off before the final season of The Waltons, he said in an interview that he took time off to travel the country. He said that although he never considered himself to be a TV icon, he soon saw just how famous he'd become as the patriarch on the classic family show.
"Everywhere I went, people were just delighted and they just sort of came out to meet me, and I was treated like a big star," Waite said. When the series was casting the role of Pa Walton, however, the casting director Lee Rich said that Waite wasn't exactly perfect for the part.
"We were looking to cast The Waltons, and Ralph walked into my office," Rich said. "We'd gone through a lot of names. We couldn't come up with anybody, and Ralph walked into my office with a beard, and I looked at Ralph and said, 'Go home and shave the beard.'"
Obedient, Waite did as he was told to land the part.
"He went home and shaved the beard, and we showed him to CBS and we hired Ralph Waite," Rich said, laughing.
Series creator Earl Hamner Jr. said that the difficulty they had casting the role of John Walton was due in part to their decision to cast Michael Learned as Olivia Walton. Hamner explained, "Once we cast Michael Learned, we had to cast a man who would be approximate to her age."
"It was all a matter of matching," he noted.
Lucky for Waite, he looked just right partnered with Michael, and he'd also managed to impress Hamner with his work in a critically acclaimed movie of the era.
"Of course we'd seen [Waite] in Five Easy Pieces," Hamner said.
Finding talented actors was part of Hamner's vision. He said the strategy was to cast people they couldn't do without and then find the right actors to fill out the other roles around them. Hamner considers himself lucky in his casting of the whole Waltons family.
"They were good actors, and they all matched," Hamner said. "They all meshed. It was a well-oiled machine."
Hamner said the reason they meshed so well was that, behind the scenes, she and Ralph were working hard to make sure the kids felt a real family vibe, supported by their stage mother and father on and off set, both while the show was on the air and beyond.
"I know toward the end, Michael and Ralph, together they're stage mother and father, were very worried that the kids might be too distraught at the break-up of the stage family, and they took great pains to be certain that there would not be a break-up," Hamner said. "They were not going to leave them, and even to this day, there's still a family feeling."
Both Richard Thomas, who played son John-Boy, and Mary Beth McDonough, who played daughter Erin Walton, echoed this fondness for their on-screen family and the father who kept them close.
"That was the jewel at the heart of the show was the genuine caring that we all had for each other," Thomas said.
"Ralph is our Pa Walton, our daddy," McDonough wrote in her autobiography. "We always call him Ralph, never Mr. Waite."
McDonough said after the series ended, the family remained close, in part because of Waite's caring nature. "Ralph has always wanted the best for people. I love him for that, and for the continued smiles and laughter he still brings me."
Ralph's on-screen wife agreed. "Ralph was a complicated man, a good-hearted man," Michael Learned told EmmyTVLegends.org. "A kind person, deeply involved in his work." She said that the connection she and Waite felt went even further than a family bond.
She told Fox News at one point the actors who played Ma and Pa Walton actually developed strong romantic feelings for one another.
"We had a deep love for each other that we would have ruined if we had taken that extra step, and we didn't," Learned said. "We never did. We thought about it, but we didn't. And I think that's why we became a spiritual husband and wife if you will, and I miss him terribly. His wife is a very good friend. But what Ralph and I had was something that came across on screen."
McDonough wrote in her book that on top of being kind, Waite was also a striking figure onscreen that boosted him to be a tremendous talent.
"Ralph has very penetrating eyes," she said. "With one look, he can scare you, make you laugh, or cause you to burst into tears."
Perhaps that penetrating stare is what helped the character of Pa Walton connect with so many in the audience at home? For humble Ralph Waite, it didn't matter what his role was in spreading the love of The Waltons, he was just proud to play his part.
"I don’t seriously see myself being a hero or being an icon," Waite once said. "I don't see myself as that. But I do see myself as someone who's been part of a group of actors who brought to people some sense of the dignity of life and the importance of love and education, those values that permeate The Waltons."