Ralph Waite Risks a Wad on a Wino Flick and Is Eased Out of 'The Waltons,' yet Comes Up Beaming

updated 07/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 01:00AM

The heap of troubles dogging Ralph Waite just now might daunt even the ever-optimistic Daddy he plays on CBS' The Waltons. He is divorcing his second wife of three years, Kerry Shear. His $1,050,000 investment in his movie about alcoholism titled On the Nickel hasn't made him a dime, and he has had trouble finding a distributor. Then it was leaked in TV Guide that Waite might be dumped from The Waltons next season.

That last shock has at least been mitigated. Waite will appear in eight episodes in the Waltons' ninth, and probably last, season. "It's kind of like a bad marriage that's going to end soon," philosophizes Waite, 52, who blames his eviction on a rift with the producers and particularly Earl Hamner Jr., the show's creator. (In his exit script, Daddy Walton will take Mama off to Arizona after she suffers a TB relapse.)

"I think Hamner took umbrage with rumors he got from the kids on the set—who have a habit of reporting everything—that I didn't think the writing was good last season and that I thought we were losing something," says Waite. On the other hand, he wasn't exactly happy to read Hamner's published indiscretion that Waite and TV wife Michael Learned had "outlived their usefulness" and might be dropped from a proposed replacement series titled The Young Waltons. Waite continues, "I couldn't believe we had spent eight years together and this degree of alienation had developed. It's hurtful to be treated in this manner." He has refused to take calls from Waltons executive producer Lee Rich, who termed the magazine report "completely ridiculous."

Waite, however, expresses his gratitude for what the show and Rich did for him. In addition to his salary, now more than $40,000 a week, he was given the opportunity to learn to direct in 15 episodes. Yet at the same time Waite adds, "If being treated nicely is what you're after in life, don't come to Hollywood. The mortality rate is high. It's the big leagues, as they say. Hanging onto your humanity here is a lot tougher than it is on skid row."

That's not a glib comparison, and nobody should know better. Though he was an ordained Presbyterian minister before he started acting at 32, Waite recalls that during a bleak period in the 1960s in New York, "I had a fairly clear picture I was going to end up on the Bowery. I was drinking heavily, living in a cheap hotel—I couldn't even wait on tables." Waite has long since pulled himself together, and as a sort of catharsis in 1978 finally wrote, directed, financed and starred in On the Nickel (the name comes from Fifth Street, part of L.A.'s skid row). It received mixed if respectful reviews when shown briefly this spring in two theaters Waite rented out of his own pocket. "It's a way I could talk about things that are important to me," he explains. "I find I like these people; they're trying to bring some dignity to their lives in a situation that's not easy. If the truth were known, I'd rather spend my time with Singin' Sam [his film's protagonist] than Lee Rich. I just find people on skid row more interesting than people in Beverly Hills."

Unfortunately, major film distributors didn't feel likewise, although Waite may soon sign with a Midwestern company. He credits Rich with giving him an advance on his Waltons salary and residuals to finance Nickel. "I gladly gave up the cushion," he says. "I'm not poor, I'm going to eat. For every $10 I spent on the film I've stashed 50¢ or a dollar to keep going." He's talking to CBS about another series, and his contract assures two more TV movies within the next year.

His recent split with his wife, an actress at the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre workshop he subsidized in a rundown section of L.A., has spurred plans for another film. It will be about a modern romance, but more realistic than An Unmarried Woman—which, he jokes, could be subtitled "Can a Divorced Woman Who's Kept Her Figure Live Happily on the Upper East Side on $90,000 a Year?" Waite remains neither worried nor overly disappointed about his own plight. "It's just too bad I'm getting older so quick because there are so many things I'd like to do," he says. "I have a lot to be up about."

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