By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ralph Waite, who played the good-hearted but soft-spoken patriarch on the 1970s U.S. television drama "The Waltons," died on Thursday in Southern California, the actor's manager said. He was 85.

Waite, who served in World War Two and was an ordained Presbyterian minister, is best known for the role of John Walton Sr. on the CBS drama about rural Appalachian life during the Great Depression.

"He was the best client and a fantastic human being," Waite's manager Susan Zachary said, adding that the actor died in Palm Desert, California, where he lived.

Waite, who left religion for about 50 years before rediscovering it again in 2010, was born in 1928 in White Plains, New York. He worked in publishing early in his career before moving onto acting.

One of his first film roles was a small part as the character Alibi in the 1967 Paul Newman film "Cool Hand Luke." In recent years Waite had recurring roles in CBS crime drama "NCIS" and NBC daytime soap opera "Days of Our Lives."

But Waite's most enduring role was the Virginia lumber mill owner of Walton's Mountain during the show's run from 1972 to 1981.

He earned an Emmy nomination in 1978 for his role on "The Waltons." His wife on the show, Olivia, was played by Michael Learned and Richard Thomas and Robert Wightman, both played their son, John Boy.

"Ralph was a good honest actor and a good honest man," Learned said in a statement. "He was my spiritual husband. We loved each other for over 40 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. I'm devastated."

Waite also earned an Emmy nomination in 1977 for his role as Slater, the third mate on a slave ship in the TV miniseries "Roots."

Waite, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress three times as a Democrat, also appeared in the 1992 drama film "The Bodyguard" and 1993 action thriller "Cliffhanger."

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)