Birthday: March 9, 1902
Died At Age: 76
Sun Sign: Pisces
Born in: Frankfort, Indiana, United States
Famous as: Actor
Height: 6'2" (188 cm), 6'2" Males
Spouse/Ex-: Herta Ware (m. 1934 – div. 1954)
father: A. Roy Ghere
mother: Katherine Ghere
children: Ellen Geer, Kate Geer, Thad Geer
Died on: April 22, 1978
place of death: Los Angeles, California, United States
U.S. State: Indiana
Will Geer was an American political activist and actor. His most memorable portrayal was that of ‘Grandpa Zebulon Tyler Walton’ in the TV series ‘The Waltons,’ which also won him an ‘Emmy Award.’ He made his ‘Broadway’ debut with ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ The play ‘110 in the Shade’ fetched him a ‘Tony Award’ nomination. As a social activist, Geer remained active in organizing labor and in other movements in Southern California and New York during the 1930s and the 1940s. He was a member of the ‘Communist Party of the United States’ and served as a reader of ‘People's World.’ He backed the 1934 ‘West Coast Waterfront Strike.’ He appeared in films such as ‘Winchester '73’ and ‘Bright Victory’ and on radio shows such as ‘Plot to Overthrow Christmas’ and ‘Bright Horizon’. The ‘House Un-American Activities Committee’ (HUAC) blacklisted him for denying naming those who had joined the ‘Communist Party.’ He later revived his acting career with films such as ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ and series such as ‘The Waltons.’ Geer founded the open-air theater ‘Theatricum Botanicum’ in Topanga, California.
Childhood & Early Life
Will Geer was born William Aughe Ghere, on March 9, 1902, in Frankfort, Indiana, US, to postal worker Roy Aaron Ghere and teacher Katherine (née Aughe).
When Geer was 11, his father abandoned the family. Geer wished to become a botanist. His grandfather had taught the young boy botanical names of plants in his native state.
He studied botany at the ‘University of Chicago’ and obtained a master's degree. While there, he became a ‘Lambda Chi Alpha’ fraternity member.
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Geer commenced his acting career after anglicizing his name. He toured with tent shows and performed on riverboats. He was part of many left-oriented documentaries. He narrated Sheldon Dick’s documentary film ‘Men and Dust,’ which was about the effects of silicosis among miners.
His ‘Broadway’ debut happened in 1928, with ‘Much Ado about Nothing.’ He appeared in other plays such as ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ and ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Geer performed with ‘Group Theatre’ (New York) and came under tutelage of Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg. He earned a ‘Tony Award’ nomination in 1964, for the ‘Best Featured Actor in a Musical’ for his performance in ‘110 in the Shade.’
Meanwhile, during the 1930s, he toured with government work camps of the ‘Civilian Conservation Corps,’ accompanying folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. Geer and Guthrie became friends and released an album named ‘Bound for Glory: Songs and Stories of Woody Guthrie’ in 1956.
In 1934, Geer became a member of the ‘Communist Party of the United States.’ He met gay rights activist Harry Hay that year, while working at the ‘Tony Pastor Theatre.’ Geer became romantically involved with Hay and remained influential in introducing the latter to the operations of the ‘Communist Party.’
Hay considered Geer his political mentor and participated in a milk strike (in Los Angeles) with Geer in 1934. While participating in the ‘San Francisco General Strike,’ the two witnessed the police firing on the strikers and causing the death of two. They supported the 83-day-long 1934 ‘West Coast Waterfront Strike.’ Geer also served the ‘West Coast Communist’ newspaper, ‘People's World,’ as a reader.
He played ‘Mephistopheles (the Devil)’ in Norman Corwin's radio play ‘The Plot to Overthrow Christmas’ in 1938 and 1944. He also portrayed ‘Penny’ in the radio soap-opera ‘Bright Horizon’ (1941–1945).
He appeared in movies such as ‘Winchester '73’ (1950), ‘Broken Arrow’ (1950), and ‘Bright Victory’ (1951). His career, however, took a back seat after he was blacklisted in the early 1950s, for his refusal to testify in front of the ‘HUAC.’
Geer gradually revived his entertainment career with some memorable performances. He appeared as ‘Bear Claw Chris Lapp’ in the 1972 blockbuster hit Western ‘Jeremiah Johnson,’ which was featured at the 1972 ‘Cannes Film Festival.’ He also played ‘Zebulon "Grandpa" Walton’ in the first six seasons (1972–1978) of ‘The Waltons.’ In 1975, he won the ‘Emmy Award’ for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series’ for the role. His death after the show’s sixth season led it to “kill” his character in the script.
Family & Personal Life
He married American actor and political activist Herta Ware in 1934. They moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s and settled in Santa Monica. They had three children, Ellen Geer (who grew up to be an actor), Kate Geer, and Thad Geer.
In 1951, Geer and Ware co-founded an open-air theater called the ‘Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’ in Ware’s five-acre land in Topanga Canyon. Geer also created a second ‘Shakespeare Garden’ there.
He also had a garden called the ‘Geer-Gore Gardens’ at his vacation house in Nichols, Connecticut. He cultivated the front and back yards of his small vacation house in Solana Beach, California, as vegetable gardens.
After he was blacklisted by the ‘HUAC,’ Geer's film career was severely affected. The couple strived financially and had to lose their Los Angeles house. They eventually divorced in 1954 but remained close friends.
His family, including Ware, stayed by his bedside, singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ by Woody Guthrie and reciting Robert Frost poems while he succumbed to a respiratory ailment on April 22, 1978. After cremation, his ashes were interred in the ‘Shakespeare Garden.’ Geer finds a place in Ware’s 2000 memoir ‘Fantastic Journey, My Life with Will Geer.’