Among the shocks of the Eight Nights That Shook the Nation—Roots—was seeing one of TV's all-time sympathetic figures, heretofore the benign John Walton, cast as Slater, the sadistic mate on a slave ship. For actor Ralph Waite, there was no problem adjusting. "It occurs to me that John Walton's great-great-great-grandfather might have been a man not unlike Slater," he observes and, indeed, the tragic perversities of life have always obsessed Waite. He himself is a non-practicing minister and ex-alcoholic, a complex, inconsolable man who has nightmares from a 1969 divorce and who is still recovering from the death of a daughter with leukemia at 9. "It sounds saccharine," Waite believes. "But you only mature when you face problems you can't deal with."

The heartening word is that Ralph Waite seems finally and successfully to be dealing with those problems at 48. Booze, he's convinced, is behind him. Sure he finds The Waltons unchallenging professionally after five seasons, and he has called his $10,000-a-week salary "obscene," but he is now able to convert his extra means and force into the most fulfilling pulpit of his life: his own two-year-old Los Angeles Actors' Theatre. It's a performers' workshop in the L.A. slums of which he notes: "It says something about the impoverished state of American theater that we're already known nationally."

Waite's concept was to reach out both to displaced actors and to citizens who had subsidized it all by tuning in to TV. So with $100,000 of his own savings, he rented and renovated an old theater hard by a seedy porno district at Santa Monica Blvd. "I chose a location," he explains, "where elderly people who eat cat food and can't even afford a phone, hookers from the neighborhood, the unemployed, families on welfare could come and see our shows—for nothing." Ralph has discovered that his actors feel amply rewarded, though they work free. "In some ways, our best audiences come in off the street—they're so alive. They relate to simple survival and don't try to intellectualize."

Waite, an Actors Studio alumnus, sought to avoid "that ingrown precious-ness where everybody tends to be self-involved. We don't want to be a little hothouse," he insists. "Just as theater has to be where people live, actors have to go out in the marketplace—not be cut off by a lens. Either an artist grows or he stagnates."

Waite's own growth as an actor began frustratingly late. The son of a construction engineer, he was raised in suburban White Plains, N.Y. in an environment he calls "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." 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. (He is still ordained, however, and occasionally performs weddings for close friends.)

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). Along the way his marriage withered and he and Beverly were divorced in 1969.

Today Waite shares his house in the Hollywood Hills with Kerry Shear, 29, whom he began dating two years ago when she showed up as a volunteer stage manager-actress at the LAAT. "She was the first woman I'd met with whom I could laugh a lot," says Ralph. "I used to see life as pain and tragedy." Kerry admits that Waite has "lightened up a bit." Marriage is in the offing, though their first altar date was scrubbed when Ralph "freaked out" in a dream about his first family. (He still often travels up to Carmel Valley to see daughters Kathleen, 20, and Suzanne, 17.)

Ralph is committed to another year as John Walton, even though Richard (John-Boy) Thomas is leaving the show—which makes Waite "very sad. We had become a family in a very real sense." Lately, Ralph's pulled one of the year's highest Nielsens pre-Roots, dramatizing ex-Haverford College President John Coleman's sampling of blue-collar life (page 48). There's also been talk of a post-Walton series, and Waite still fantasizes about making a low-budget personal film. Meanwhile he and Kerry spend every free evening and weekend—and more of his money—down at the LAAT.

"I'm not any more moral than my neighbors," says Waite of his vision. "I have vanity and greed enough for one person. But at the same time I feel in my bones you lose a lot of life's value if you don't see yourself as a member of the family of man. The beauty of life is in people who feel some obligation to enhance life. Without that," he says, touching Kerry, "we're only half alive."