Ralph Waite
Ralph Waite, who played John Walton, has died aged 85.

The Waltons star Ralph Waite has died, aged 85.

The actor played, John Walton, the kind-hearted patriarch, on one of US TV's longest running and most loved series.

His manager Alan Mills confirmed the news, however he could not elaborate on the cause of death.

The actor's passing has come as a shock since he had not reported any serious health complaints and had continued working, most recently appearing in episodes of NCIS, in which he played the dad of Mark Harmon's character. He also appeared in Bones and Days of Our Lives.

The Waltons, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1981, starred Waite as the father of seven children. The show's entire cast remained unchanged throughout its nine-year run and audiences watched as the children grew up before their eyes.

The close bond between the characters on screen and off, was an intrinsic part of the show's appeal, and the close relationships forged by the cast continue to endure to the present day.

The actor's co-stars and TV children have been paying emotional tributes to the much-loved star since news of his death broke.

"I am devastated to announce the loss of my precious ''papa'' Walton, Ralph Waite," said Mary McDonough, who played daughter Erin Walton.

"I loved him so much; I know he was so special to all of us. He was like a real father to me. Goodnight Daddy. I love you."

The Waltons
Waite played the much loved patriarch of the Walton family. CBS

Michael Learned, who played wife Olivia Walton, said she was "devastated by the death of a good honest actor and a good honest man," she said in a statement.

"He was my spiritual husband. We loved each other for over forty years. He died a working actor at the top of his game. He was a loving mentor to many and a role model to an entire generation."

The family drama was set in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia in the deep South through the Great Depression and World War II and followed the daily travails of the Walton household as seen through the eyes of John Boy Walton and penned in his timeless diaries.

It was narrated by the series creator, Earl Hamner Jr., who based it on his own his family memories taken from his book Spencer's Mountain.

The show won a loyal following over generations, who revelled in the simplicity of live on Waltons Mountain and the innocent musings of its inhabitants.

Waite, had served in the U.S. Marines before earning a bachelor's degree from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Yale University Divinity School.

He became an ordained Presbyterian minister and then worked at a publishing house, the paper said, before venturing into acting.

Ralph Waite
Waite starred in several movies including The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston. Warner Bros

A seasoned stage actor he won roles on the big screen in 1967's Cool Hand Luke and 1970's Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson.

In 1992 he starred alongside the late Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner.

But his remembered most fondly for his performance as the upstanding John Walton receiving an Emmy nomination for The Waltons and another for his performance in the ABC miniseries Roots.

His personal life was however less stable as he became afflicted by alcoholism.

"I was a caring, responsible father to all of these kids," he said. "But I was drinking the night before and being a drunk on the side. I found a way to get sober."

In 1990, Waite ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic challenger to a four-term Republican incumbent for the congressional district that included Riverside, Palm Springs and Palm Desert, where he lived.

In 1998, he pursued his political aspirations further, vying for the congressional seat left open after Republican and former singer Sonny Bono, died in a skiing accident. Waite lost the seat to Bono's widow, Mary.

While production of The Waltons series ended in 198, the show endures, with re-runs of the series, broadcast all over the world.