At the dedication ceremony of The Walton's Mountain Museum,
Earl Hamner described Will Geer "As a national treasure",
and so he was.
Born in Frankfort Indiana in 1902, William Auge Geer would, in his 76 years, have a significant impact on the American theater and make an everlasting Impression as Zebulon Walton. Mr. Geer's career, which covered six decades, began in tent shows and on river boats. It was a career that included Broadway plays, movies, television, and countless Shakespearean roles as well as notable portrayals of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
He was a formidable man who stood 6-feet-2 and weighed 230 pounds and his presence was always felt. Will Geer once described himself as a folklorist, and went on to say "Which means I can't vouchsafe for every last picayunish detail of my stories; but they're mostly true. Mostly." He was proud of being a lifelong agitator, a radical. "A rebel is just against things for rebellions sake. I'm a radical. Someone who goes to the roots, which is the Latin derivation of radical."
Helen Hayes once described him as "The world's oldest hippie". He loved to travel and feel close to the land. It was during one of his travels that he met the famous balladeer Woodie Guthrie. Mr. Geer was a folksinger of some repute, and he, along with Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives, toured the country during the Depression singing mostly at government work camps. they remained close friends throughout the years.
His film credits Include "Fight for Life," "Lust for Gold," "Comanche Territory," "Winchester '73, "Bright Victory," "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Reivers," and "Seconds." Before The Waltons, Mr. Geer had appeared in television for many years - on such shows as "Mannix," 'Gunsmoke," 'Mission: Impossible," "Hawaii 5-0," and as a regular on "The Young Rebels" series. He often played the role of a crusty but kindly man, a role that his friends said, reflected his private life.
According to Earl Hamner, the part of Grandpa Walton was a composite of his two real grandfathers: Walter Clifton Hamner and Colonel Anderson Giannini. "From my grandfather Hamner I learned a deep sense of tradition and ritual and family. From Colonel Giannini came a joy of life. He was a large man with a deep commanding voice. A baseball fan who loved The Yankees, inquisitive and kind, and always active. Both men were proud and had a sense of family. They were the repositories of traditions that make us civilized and that we need to pass on to subsequent generations: story telling, knowledge of our origins, family prayer, and a sense of being tied to an honorable past."
Will Geer said his portrayal of Grandpa Walton was a blend of Earl Hamner's writings, himself in his 70's and his own grandfather as he remembered him. "My Indiana boyhood was right out of The Waltons", said Mr. Geer. "Fishing in the summers. A Tom Sawyer time before the streams got all polluted. My grandfather had white hair and a white mustache. He'd been a 49er, made some gold money in California, and came back to Indiana to build the town's first opera house. We'd go for walks and he'd say hello to the trees by their Latin names." Soon young Will had his future planned - he would go to college and study botany. "I wanted to talk to the trees too," said Will. "There's one thing I neglected to take into account. All actors are born showoffs. I was a showoff." Will went off to Chicago to study botany, but he was soon bitten by the theater and joined a touring company. He finished college, however, and went on to receive his master's degree in botany from Columbia University.
Will Geer combined his passion for acting and plants by forming a most unusual repertory theater situated in rustic Topanga Canyon in California's San Fernando Valley. He named it "Theatricum Botanicum'. Workshops would be held there for young actors and Mr. Geer would provide coaching and counsel. These would not be sessions just about the theater. Shakespeare would be read and discussions held on philosophy and psychology. On Sundays, under the eucalyptus and oak tress, there would be folksinging sessions.
Ellen Geer, Will's daughter, recently remarked that when she thought of her father, "I think of love. He always made everyone feel at home and relaxed. He especially loved children. He was my favorite person in the whole world." Will Geer died on April 22, 1978. At his bedside were family members singing "This land is your land" and reciting favorite poems from Robert Frost. Funeral services were at Theatricum Botanicum and Mr. Geer was buried in a grove were he had often walked.
Will Geer played everyone's grandfather. At least, what everyone wanted their grandfather to be. He made you feel comfortable and wanted. His raucous laugh put you at ease and you knew everything would be all right. Earl Hamner said that Will was really playing himself. "He was vigorous, outspoken, and a joyful man. Life came out of him like a well."
He was universally loved. He was a grand old actor who brought to The Waltons a twinkle in his eye, a strong shoulder to lean on, and a free spirit. He was kindly, wise, compassionate, funny, and he obviously loved life. He is sorely missed. Goodnight Grandpa.
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