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Forever identified with his role as Papa Walton, Ralph Waite is eager to tackle the challenge of a very different fatherly role: 'King Lear'

Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

Fathers come in many flavors. It's a huge stretch from the nurturing Depression-era daddy of TV's "The Waltons" to the old paternal tyrant of "King Lear," but Ralph Waite embraces the challenge.

Rehearsal brings out the Lear in Ralph Waite, right, with fellow actor Stephen Mendillo, far left, and David Wheeler, director of the Pittsburgh Playhouse production. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Ten days ago, he sat down for a morning interview in his Shadyside apartment, just before beginning rehearsals for Shakespeare's masterpiece, directed by David Wheeler for the professional Playhouse Repertory Company, where it will run Sept. 14 through Oct. 7.

When Waite began his nine-year run as Papa Walton in 1972, he was 44, and makeup artists had to gray his hair to get the wanted look. Now 73, he'll still have to be grizzled up to play the octogenarian king, "fourscore and upward." In real life, though, he looks a rumpled 65 -- a thoughtful, articulate, soft-spoken man who isn't afraid to display his wounds.

Waite has played Lear twice before, at the University of Richmond and at the off-off-Broadway Aulis Theatre Group, the latter a gender-blind production. "Like any actor worth his salt," he says, "I had wanted to play Lear for a long time. ... I spent a lot of time at the Actors' Studio, where people keep coming back, and I worked on sections of 'King Lear' and kept wondering when I'd be old enough."

How old is old enough? Lear can be played as hale or infirm, crafty or insane, irascible or tender. But to the query of what you most need to play Lear, the joking response is, "a light Cordelia," because the old king has to carry her dead body on stage at the play's heartbreaking finale. In other words, although the role demands the hard-won wisdom of what was once considered great age, it requires youthful strength of the actor. Waite recalls Charles Lamb's caution about not wanting "to watch a doddering old fool" suffering Lear's tragic extremes.

Not to worry -- Waite looks as if he can carry the role, let alone Cordelia. And, of course, he feels that his age is a plus. "I sense there are things I can bring to the role that I couldn't at 40 or 50. The story resonates to me because of my experience of life. ... I'm not much of a Shakespearean actor," he says, meaning he hasn't done much Shakespeare, "but I feel with Harold Bloom that 'Lear' is the greatest."

Asked if he can cite any more specific preparation for the role, he says, smiling, "Well, I had three daughters. ... And I don't talk much about their mother, either." (The mother is never mentioned in "King Lear.")

Acting is his calling

"I began acting late," Waite says. He grew up in White Plains, N.Y., was a philosophy major at Bucknell College, went to Yale Divinity School and became a Presbyterian minister. You can still hear the philosophic and religious bent in his discussion of theater and in his commitments to human services and politics.

When he left the ministry, he worked for a while for Harper & Row publishers. There were other jobs. But when he reached his 30s, the theater made its claim. It's "profoundly important for the community," he says, alluding to the power of story telling. He cites a St. John Perse story, "The Tragedians," about a town cut off by heavy snows until, with the first thaw, "through the pass came the players" -- the itinerant actors who "remind us what it is to be human, who tell us the stories of pain and passion."


"King Lear"

Where: Playhouse Repertory Company at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

When: Opens Sept. 14 and runs through Oct. 7 on Wednesdays through Sundays; show times are at 8 p.m. except for Sundays, which are at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $18 Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $22 Fridays and Saturdays; students and seniors half-price one-half-hour before performance.


And he adds: "Also, I was very neurotic and young and drinking too much and seeing all the pretty girls in acting class" -- those are also all reasons to become an actor.

More seriously, he considers acting "a calling -- though I didn't talk that way much around Joe Allen's," the Broadway actors' hangout. "After 40 years, it's hard to maintain that commitment, but it's still there."

He marks his theatrical birth from a lead role in 1965 in William Alfred's "Hogan's Goat," playing opposite Faye Dunaway. She went on to Hollywood, but he stayed in theater. He formed an early connection with the Theatre Company of Boston (1963-75), led by Wheeler, whose changing stable of actors included Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jon Voight, Lisa Richards and James Woods.

An important early film credit was "Five Easy Pieces" (1971). But Waite is quick to testify that "The Waltons" came to him at a low time, just when what he most needed was a steady job, "to heal me from a pretty dissolute life. ... It's 28 years ago I stopped drinking." That was just about when "The Waltons" came along. Even more precisely, "I'm 29 years sober next month."

So on a personal level, " 'The Waltons' was profoundly important after years of wandering around. I was 44 and cut off from family and friends. It nurtured me back to a sense of family and who I am. It was a transforming experience."

He also had had a decade of hand-to-mouth acting, so it was "pleasing to make money and have recognition and some success. On that simple, human level, 'The Waltons' was a good thing. But in terms of my artistic development, I don't think it was good. ... It classified me. In those days, when you did a TV series, most film directors wouldn't use you." Naturally, he was typed for father roles: "Only occasionally do I get roles where I'm mean and cruel. There were no major film roles -- just journeyman work.

"But aside from being categorized in a way difficult to break, the actual doing of 'The Waltons' was a godsend. I made a lot of money. I was a responsible worker. It got me to clarify." Along the way, he directed 15 "Waltons" episodes. And he founded the Los Angeles Actors Theatre and ran it for a while.

Richard Thomas left "The Waltons" after five years and Michael Learned after eight. Waite left after nine (the series continued one year more) and formed his own production company to work on a new series, "The Mississippi," with Warner Bros. He describes that as "three years of intense work. I took it very seriously -- I created, produced, acted and knocked myself out over it. When it was canceled after about 19 shows, I was fed up." So he moved to Palm Desert, about two hours southeast of L.A., "just to read and relax and regroup."

The itinerant life

In Palm Desert, Waite got himself involved in the community. He says he had had that experience as a young man, "but the itinerant life of an actor forbade that for years," and the former minister had missed it. His involvement was in alcohol and drug recovery work. He eventually became president of a coalition that built housing for the working poor, especially migrant workers. He also led a recovery center that has some 70 residents, some treated for free.

He laughs: "I just saw that Ben Affleck went to a center and paid $33,000 a month. At ours, if you have the money, it costs you $500."

As a result of his community action, "I began to be aware of the lack of political support from our old, comfortable Republican congressman" who held what Waite calls one of the safest Republican seats in the country. The final straw for Waite was over AIDS. There was a large gay population in the area, with a well-developed AIDS support system, but the congressman "not only refused to help them get funding, but said in the press anyone with AIDS deserved what they got."

Waite decided to take him on in the late 1980s, committing "lots of my own money" to the race, since no one thought he had a chance. Near the end he led in the polls, but the national party came in with some negative advertising ("mostly fear tactics") and he was edged out. That was the congressman's last race, but he was succeeded in 1994 by Sonny Bono, who proved very popular. When Bono died, Waite ran in the special election to succeed him but was trounced by Bono's wife.

Talk about the itinerant life of an actor -- it was an odd race. Waite already had contracted to do "Death of a Salesman" in New Jersey. So he'd fly west after the Sunday matinee, campaign Monday, then fly back for the Tuesday performance. "It was a quick campaign, and the sympathy vote was overwhelming. I got crushed."

Throughout the '80s and '90s, he continued to do other TV and movies. The list of credits is long, but he says his movie career languished, partly because he was "less and less willing to drive the two hours to L.A. to audition." But he was always available for theater, although he found "it took three years to feel I had some power back on stage, that I wasn't just a thin film actor -- to get some sense of my own presence. Film is so little" -- and he gestures, comparing the internal nature of film acting to the outward thrust necessary on stage.

"It took me a while to feel confident again. The habits you slip into are so subtle -- you get flabby. Something dries up if you're not constantly pushing to reach new depths."

"Death of a Salesman" (directed by Wheeler) is one milestone among many recent stage engagements, including "Anna Christie," "A Young Man from Atlanta" (for which he won the best actor award in Boston) and "The Gin Game."

Both politics and Palm Desert are now behind him. Waite lives in New York City with his wife of 20 years, Linda, an interior decorator. He's proud of his stepson, Liam Waite, who's working a lot in film and is now in Shanghai, making the first Chinese-American TV series. "I'm always trying to get him to play Edmund" -- the sexy young villain in "King Lear."

That "Lear" remains on his mind is clear from his dog, a "tough little Jack Russell terrier" whom he named Kent, like the similar character in the play.

Waite came to Pittsburgh because he was invited by that same Wheeler, who directed "Private Eyes" for Playhouse Rep in 1999. Waite loved working with him years ago in Boston -- "I did several seasons, I'd try anything" -- and considers him a good friend.

"The last time I played Lear, we had a teen-age Cordelia -- giggling, playing blindfolded in the first scene." But this time, his daughters will be older -- that same Lisa Richards from his Boston days as Goneril, Penelope Lindblom as Regan and Robin Walsh as Cordelia. (How much does she weigh?)

Although rehearsals hadn't started, Waite expected they would aim for "a warrior king. I think what we're hoping for is the sense of primitive warring tribes or clans." All those relationships are now being worked out in the rehearsal hall.

Unlike Lear, Waite recently had a family reunion in the Catskills with two of his daughters (his oldest died at age 9). But politics, alcohol treatment, show business and life itself should give him plenty to draw on: "I feel I know in my bones what's going on."

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