Will Geer

Active - 1932 - 2007  |   Born - Mar 9, 1902 in Frankfort, Indiana, United States  |   Died - Apr 22, 1978   |   Genres - Drama, Western

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

Though perhaps best remembered for portraying the wise and crusty Grandpa Zeb Walton on the long-running The Waltons (1972-1978), character actor Will Geer had been a staple in films and television for many years before that. He had also been a Broadway regular since his theatrical debut in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1928). Born William Auge Ghere in Frankfort, IN, his interest in acting began in high school. Geer studied botany at the University of Chicago and earned a master's in botany at Columbia. During his college days, Geer also appeared in student theater. Always a bit of a rebel with a genuine love of people and the land, Geer hooked up with folksingers Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives during the Depression to travel about and perform, mostly at government work camps. Even late in life, Geer described himself as a folklorist. Actress Helen Hayes wryly described him once as "the world's oldest hippie."

He got his professional start with Eva Le Gallienne's National Repertory Company. During the '30s and '40s, Geer appeared often on Broadway. Beginning with The Misleading Lady in 1932, he began playing small occasional roles in films. By the late '40s, he had become a character actor in such films as Intruder in the Dust (1949). He often appeared in Westerns like Comanche Territory and Broken Arrow (1950). In 1951, after appearing in four films that year, Geer was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to answer their questions. Still, Geer managed to appear in at least one film, Salt of the Earth, a defiant, incendiary documentary look at a worker's strike led by the wives of abused salt miners in New Mexico that featured a production staff largely comprised of blackballed Hollywood artists. Other than that, Geer returned to Broadway until 1962 when Otto Preminger cast him as a Senate minority leader in Advise and Consent. During the '60s, the 6'2", 230-pound Geer was frequently cast in villainous roles. He often appeared on television throughout the decade in shows ranging from Gunsmoke to Hawaii 5-0 as well as playing a regular role on the short-lived series The Young Rebels (1970-1971). He was a key member of The Waltons from the pilot special through his death when the series was on summer hiatus in 1978. His was among the show's most popular characters and he is said to have patterned Zebulon Walton after producer/creator Earl Hamner's book character, himself, and his own grandfather, a successful sourdough during the California goldrush who sported a mustache and white hair similar to Geer's own. It was his grandfather who taught the actor to love nature and to study botany. In addition to his work on the popular family series, Geer also continued a busy feature-film and television-movie career. His last film appearance was in the highly regarded made-for-TV biography of Harriet Tubman, A Woman Called Moses (1978). His daughter, Ellen Geer, is also an actor.

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  • Frankfort's first opera house was built by his grandfather.
  • A member of Lambda Chi Alpha.
  • At the beginning of his acting career, toured in tent shows and on riverboats.
  • During World War I and World War II, taught vegetable growing because he was blacklisted by Hollywood producers.
  • Founder of the Theatricum Botanicum, a repertory theater in Topanga Canyon, California.