William Aughe Ghere
March 9, 1902
|Died||April 22, 1978 (aged 76)|
|Herta Ware (1934-1954; divorced)|
Will Geer (born William Aughe Ghere, March 9, 1902 - April 22, 1978) was an American actor and social activist, who was active in labor organizing and other movements in New York and Southern California in the 1930s and 1940s. In California he befriended rising singer Woody Guthrie. They both lived in New York for a time in the 1940s. He was blacklisted in the 1950s by HUAC for refusing to name persons who had joined the Communist Party.
Geer acted on stage in New York and eastern theatres, and in California for film. He is best-known as an actor for his later portrayal of Grandpa Zebulon Tyler Walton in the 1970s TV series The Waltons.
Geer was born in Frankfort, Indiana, the son of Katherine (née Aughe), a teacher, and Roy Aaron Ghere, a postal worker. His father left the family when he was 11 years old. He was deeply influenced by his grandfather, who taught him the botanical names of the plants in his native state. Geer started out to become a botanist, studying the subject and obtaining a master's degree at the University of Chicago. While at Chicago, he also became a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.
Anglicizing his name, Geer began his acting career touring in tent shows and on riverboats. He worked on several left-oriented documentaries, including narrating Sheldon Dick's Men and Dust, about silicosis among miners.
Geer became involved with Harry Hay, a homosexual activist. In 1934, Hay met Geer at the Tony Pastor Theatre, where Geer worked as an actor. They became lovers, and Hay credited Geer as his political mentor. Hay and Geer participated in a milk strike in Los Angeles. There Hay was first exposed to radical gay activism in the person of "Clarabelle", a drag queen who held court in the Bunker Hill neighborhood and who hid Hay from police. Later that year, Hay and Geer performed in support of the San Francisco General Strike, where they witnessed police firing on strikers, killing two.
Geer made his Broadway debut as Pistol in a 1928 production of Much Ado About Nothing, created the role of Mr. Mister in Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, played Candy in John Steinbeck's theatrical adaptation of his novella Of Mice and Men, and appeared in numerous plays and revues throughout the 1940s. From 1948 to 1951, he appeared in more than a dozen movies, including Winchester '73 (as Wyatt Earp), Broken Arrow, Comanche Territory (all 1950) and Bright Victory (1951).
Geer became a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1934. Geer was also influential in introducing Harry Hay to organizing in the Communist Party. In 1934, Geer and Hay gave support to a labor strike of the port of San Francisco; the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike which lasted 83 days. Though marred by violence, it was an organizing triumph, one that became a model for future union strikes. Geer became a reader of the West Coast Communist newspaper People's World.
Geer became a dedicated activist, touring government work camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s with folk singers such as Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie (whom he introduced to the People's World and the Daily Worker. Guthrie later wrote a column for the latter paper). In 1956, the duo released an album together on Folkways Records, titled Bound for Glory: Songs and Stories of Woody Guthrie. In his biography, Harry Hay described Geer's activism and described their activities while organizing for the strike. Geer is credited with introducing Guthrie to Pete Seeger at the 'Grapes of Wrath' benefit which Geer organized in 1940 for migrant farm workers.
Geer acted with the Group Theatre (New York) studying under Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. Geer also acted in radio, appearing as Mephistopheles (the Devil) in the 1938 and 1944 productions of Norman Corwin's The Plot to Overthrow Christmas. He also acted in the radio soap opera Bright Horizon.
Geer was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. As a result, Geer appeared in very few films over the next decade. Among them was Salt of the Earth (1954) which starred and was produced, directed and written by blacklisted Hollywood personnel. It told the story of a miners' strike in New Mexico from a pro-union standpoint. The film was denounced as "subversive," and faced difficulties in its production and distribution as a consequence.
In 1951 Geer founded the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California, with his wife, Herta Ware. He combined his acting and botanical careers at the Theatricum, cultivating every plant mentioned in Shakespeare's plays.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Geer played several seasons at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. In addition, he created a second "Shakespeare Garden" on the theater's grounds.
By this time he was also working sporadically again on Broadway. In 1964 he was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for 110 in the Shade. In 1972, he played the part of "Bear Claw" in Jeremiah Johnson along with Robert Redford. In 1972, he was cast as Zebulon Walton, the family patriarch on The Waltons, a role he took over from Edgar Bergen, who played the character in the pilot. He won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for The Waltons in 1975.
Geer maintained a garden at his vacation house, called Geer-Gore Gardens, in Nichols, Connecticut. He visited often and attended the local Fourth of July fireworks celebrations, sometimes wearing a black top hat or straw hat and always his trademark denim overalls with only one suspender hooked. Geer also had a small vacation house in Solana Beach, California, where his front and back yards were cultivated as vegetable gardens rather than lawns.
When Geer died, shortly after completing the sixth season of The Waltons, the death of his character was written into the show's script. His final episode, the last episode of the 1977-78 season, depicted his being reunited with his onscreen wife Esther (played by Ellen Corby; she had been absent for the entire season, due to a stroke). Geer's character was mourned onscreen during the first episode of the 1978-79 season.
His former wife, actress Herta Ware, was best known for her performance as the wife of Jack Gilford in the film Cocoon (1985). Geer and Ware had three children, Kate Geer, Thad Geer, and actress Ellen Geer. Ware also had a daughter, actress Melora Marshall, from another marriage. Although Geer and Ware eventually divorced, they remained close for the rest of their lives.
As Will Geer was dying on April 22, 1978, of respiratory failure at the age of 76, his family sang Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and recited poems by Robert Frost at his deathbed. Geer's remains were cremated; his ashes are buried at the Theatricum Botanicum in the "Shakespeare Garden" in Topanga Canyon, near Santa Monica, California.