‘Waltons’ child star Kami Cotler reflects on late actor Ralph Waite 5 years after his death

Ralph Waite, the big-hearted patriarch John Walton in the ‘70s Depression-era series “The Waltons,” passed away five years ago, on Feb. 13, 2014 at age 85 — and one co-star who grew up with him still has vivid memories of the beloved actor.

Kami Cotler, who played Elizabeth Walton, the youngest member of the TV family, enjoyed fame as a child star during her time in the series but has since gone on to pursue a completely different career as an adult. The 53-year-old mother of two has dedicated her life to education, specifically leading charter schools in Los Angeles. And while she’s no longer pursuing acting, Cotler still vividly remembers bringing “The Waltons” to life and befriending Waite along the way.

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Ralph Waltie and Michael Learned in "The Waltons."

Ralph Waltie and Michael Learned in "The Waltons." (YouTube)

Cotler spoke to Fox News about her relationship with Waite, how she feels about “The Waltons” today and why she’s passionate about her current role.

Fox News: What was it like working with Ralph Waite?
Kami Cotler: I’m the youngest of all the kids on the show, so my perspective comes from being a little kid. Ralph took his work so seriously. You can see in Ralph’s performances, the way he prepared, the way that he directed — this was not a game we were playing. There was something really artful and serious going on.

Ralph Waite

Ralph Waite (Reuters)

Ralph was also very passionate about politics, how people were treated and social justice. So as a little kid, most of that stuff goes right by you. But I was able to get a glimpse of things. For example, one time he advocated very strongly about casting because there were certain parts that called for Native Americans. And the production company wasn’t planning on casting Native Americans. He stood up and said, "No, these are parts for native people and it’s wrong to cast any other person in them."

Fox News: What’s one memory of Waite that still resonates with you?
Cotler: His singing. Ralph was a terrible singer. But he always did it with enormous gusto nonetheless. Acting on a TV show can be quite dull. There’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. And then suddenly you need to have all of this energy and pretend you’re in the middle of a busy family dinner. During rehearsals, Ralph would just break into Eric Clapton’s "I Shot the Sheriff," which he sang terribly. But it made everybody laugh. He also had some really, really bad jokes. He would tell the same couple of jokes to make everybody laugh. And there was that ridiculous laugh when he was doing something silly like that.

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Set in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II, the show follows the Walton family, consisting of John (Ralph Waite) and Olivia (Michael Learned), their seven children, and John's parents Zebulon "Zeb" Tyler (Will Greer) and Esther (Ellen Corby).

Set in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II, the show follows the Walton family, consisting of John (Ralph Waite) and Olivia (Michael Learned), their seven children, and John's parents Zebulon "Zeb" Tyler (Will Greer) and Esther (Ellen Corby). (Getty)

Fox News: Do you remember the last time you spoke to him?
Cotler: Yes, very clearly. This was not long before he passed away. Michael [Learned] organized a dinner for us and we were over at her house. I hadn’t seen Ralph in a while. He lived down in the desert so we didn’t see him as frequently as we saw other members of the cast who lived close by. We were all sitting around Michael’s living room. He went from one to the other, the castmates. He would tell each one of us, "How are you? Are you OK?" And it wasn’t like a casual "Hey, how ya doing?” It was really intent and him wanting to be sure that we were all good in our lives. That we were happy and situated. And it wasn’t until after he passed away that I thought, "He was checking in. He was making sure everybody was good." Maybe he knew he wasn’t going to be around.

Ralph Waite

Ralph Waite (Getty)

Fox News: What's one scene from the show that still sticks out to you?
Cotler: At the beginning of the show, he was dealing with alcoholism and his challenges within his own family. There was a scene between him and me when Elizabeth’s raccoon dies. And we’re standing by the raccoon’s grave and it’s pouring with pretend rain. Elizabeth asks the question, "Why do the things you love have to die?" Ralph has a lovely response as John Walton. And the way Ralph told the story, he realized he was kneeling in the mud talking to me, that he had a responsibility to raise his children. To be a better father and to help protect them as they navigated through life’s challenges. He didn’t necessarily think at that moment he was doing a very good job. So he did tell that story about how the acting and the pretend moment really informed his own choices in his real life with his actual children.

The Waltons, CBS (1972-1981).

The Waltons, CBS (1972-1981). (AP)

Fox News: Looking back, how did he feel about "The Waltons" after it came to an end?
Cotler: He said something really interesting about it. I think he said it at a wedding. It was one of our weddings – I can’t remember who it was – but he got up and said normally as an actor, we get together with a group of people, you create an ensemble, you have this very intense personal experience for a matter of weeks, and then you all go your separate ways. And that’s the normal part of being an actor. Intense togetherness and then moving on to the next thing.

And he said he sort of expected how "The Waltons" would be. But he realized that, as he looked at each of us as we sat in the audience, that he still felt connected. And that the bonds we created in this fictional family were family-like connections. And that we were basically part of each other’s lives whether we wanted it or not. And I think just acknowledging how unique our experience was and how enduring it was for each other.

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Kami Cotler today. — Courtesy of Kami Cotler

Kami Cotler today. — Courtesy of Kami Cotler

Fox News: Why does the show continue to resonate with audiences?
Cotler: It represents a side of American life that isn’t often represented, which is a big, working-class family living in a rural place. You don’t see those elements on television very often. And there were lots of writers writing from personal experiences. They were writing about their own upbringings in Kentucky, Tennessee or Virginia. These were people sharing their own stories of being part of a struggling family or living in a rural place. The writers definitely had good stories to tell. And I think we were very fortunate in having the actors that we had. They’re all phenomenally talented and managed to establish something that made it easy for all these children acting along with them to do a good job and to make it real.

Fox News: You had the chance to meet Natalie Wood. What was she like?
Cotler: I knew who Natalie Wood was because my father was in love with Natalie Wood. She was his favorite. We were at some awards show and I just walked right up to her. I was probably 7. And I said, "My daddy is in love with you." I think I was giving away cocktail umbrellas that I had stolen from everybody’s glasses and giving them out to people I wanted to meet. She just pulled me into her lap. I sat and chatted with her until I was ready to move on to the next person.

Natalie Wood in 1979.

Natalie Wood in 1979. (Getty)

Fox News: Is it true you’re a school principal now?
Cotler: I’m not at the very moment a school principal. After the show ended, I went off to college and got my teaching credentials. And then I taught for a number of years. Then I helped launch a charter school in Los Angeles, which is how I ended up as a school leader. And then I opened up another middle school in LA where I was a principal for four, five years. … We have three charter schools in LA. Environmental charter schools. And I basically support all three site leaders with whatever comes up. … I help troubleshoot whatever exciting new problems might emerge.

Fox News: Why education?
Cotler: I think acting was a great job for me as a child, but then I also had a very unusual situation in that I was on the same show for years and years.  … Then I was doubly blessed because I was working with a really nice group of people. I was always interested in everything that went on on set.

I always wanted to learn how things worked. And everybody was very super gracious about letting this little girl climb all over their equipment and ask 100 questions. So when I went off to college, it seemed like education would be a really good way to learn more about American culture, live in different parts of the country, work with lots of people and be busy in that way, versus being busy on a TV set. And I have to say, opening a charter school is a lot like putting on a show!