Will Geer
Geer (with Ellen Corby) as Grandpa "Zeb" Walton in The Waltons
William Aughe Ghere

(1902-03-09)March 9, 1902
DiedApril 22, 1978(1978-04-22) (aged 76)
Los Angeles, California
  • Actor
  • musician
  • social activist
Years active1927–1978
(m. 1934; div. 1954)
PartnerHarry Hay (1932-1934)[1]
Children3, including Ellen Geer
RelativesWillow Geer (granddaughter)

Will Geer (born William Aughe Ghere; March 9, 1902 – April 22, 1978) was an American actor, musician, 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 Hollywood after refusing, in testimony before Congress, to name persons who had joined the Communist Party.

In his later years, Geer was best known for his role as Grandpa Zebulon "Zeb" Walton in the TV series The Waltons from 1972 until his death in 1978.

Early life

Geer was born in Frankfort, Indiana, the son of Katherine (née Aughe), a teacher, and Roy Aaron Ghere, a postal worker.[2][3] 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 was a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.


Geer created the role of Mr. Mister in the 1937 Federal Theatre Project production of The Cradle Will Rock.

Anglicizing his name, Geer began his acting career touring in tent shows and on riverboats. He worked on several social commentary documentaries, including narrating Sheldon Dick's Men and Dust, about silicosis among miners.

He created the role of Mr. Mister in Marc Blitzstein's 1937 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).

He 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).[4][5] 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 their activities while organizing for the strike.[6]: 64, 67  He is credited with introducing Guthrie to Pete Seeger at the 'Grapes of Wrath' benefit which he organized in 1940 for migrant farm workers.

He acted with the Group Theatre (New York) studying under Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. He acted in radio, appearing as Mephistopheles (the Devil) in the 1938 and 1944 productions of Norman Corwin's The Plot to Overthrow Christmas.[7] He also acted in the radio soap opera Bright Horizon.[8]


Geer was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.[9][10] As a result, he 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.

Later years

In 1951, Geer founded the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California, with his wife, actress 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, he 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 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 1967 he performed a soliloquy as the prosecutor delivering the closing argument against the two murderers in the film In Cold Blood. In 1972, he played the part of Bear Claw in Jeremiah Johnson.

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 TV movie upon which the series was based. He won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for The Waltons in 1975. When he 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 1977–1978 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). His character was mourned onscreen during the first episode of the 1978–1979 season, titled "The Empty Nest".

Personal life

Geer married actress Herta Ware in 1934. He 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 he and Ware divorced in 1954, they remained close for the rest of their lives.

In 1934, Geer met Harry Hay at the Tony Pastor Theatre where Geer was working as an actor. They soon became lovers.[11] He and Hay participated in a milk strike in Los Angeles. Later that year, he and Hay performed in support of the San Francisco General Strike, where they witnessed police firing on strikers, killing two.[12][6][page needed] He was a committed leftist, with Hay later describing him as his political mentor.[6]: 64–65 [13][14] He introduced Hay to Los Angeles' leftist community, and together they took part in activism, joining demonstrations for laborers' rights and the unemployed, and on one occasion handcuffed themselves to lampposts outside UCLA to hand out leaflets for the American League Against War and Fascism.[6]: 64–65  He became a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1934. After Hay had become increasingly politicized, Geer introduced him to the Party.[6]: 67, 69 [15] In 1934, he and Hay gave support to a labor strike of the port of San Francisco, part of the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike.[4] Geer became a reader of the West Coast Communist newspaper People's World.[5]

He 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.[16] He also had a small vacation house in Solana Beach, California, where his front and back yards were cultivated as vegetable gardens rather than lawns.


Geer died of respiratory failure at the age of 76 on April 22, 1978. As he was dying, his family sang Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and recited poems by Robert Frost at his deathbed.[citation needed] His remains were cremated; his ashes are buried at the Theatricum Botanicum in the Shakespeare Garden in Topanga Canyon, California.[17]

TV and filmography



  1. ^ Kathleen Kennedy; Sharon Rena Ullman (2003). Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past. Ohio State University Press. pp. 289–90. ISBN 978-0-8142-0927-1.
  2. ^ American National Biography: Fishberg-Gihon, John Arthur Garraty, Mark Christopher Carnes, American Council of Learned Societies, Oxford University Press, 1999 [1]
  3. ^ "Christine-Alcorn - User Trees". genealogy.com.
  4. ^ a b Michael Bronski "The real Harry Hay", Boston Phoenix, October 31, 2002
  5. ^ a b Denning, Michael, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, Verso (1998), ISBN 1-85984-170-8, ISBN 978-1-85984-170-9, p. 14
  6. ^ a b c d e Stuart Timmons, The Trouble With Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (1990)
  7. ^ ""The Plot to Overthrow Christmas: Norman Corwin", Tangent online". Archived from the original on September 21, 2017. Retrieved July 1, 2013.
  8. ^ Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. Retrieved September 17, 2019.
  9. ^ "H. Rept. 82-2516 - Annual report of the Committee on Un-American Activities for the year 1952. December 28, 1952. (Original release date.) January 3, 1953. -- Committed to the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union and ordered to be printed". GovInfo.gov. U.S. Government Printing Office. December 28, 1952. p. 45. Retrieved June 29, 2023. Appeared Apr. 11, 1951, and refused to affirm or deny membership in Communist Party.
  10. ^ "H. Rept. 82-378 - Report on the Communist "peace" offensive. A campaign to disarm and defeat the United States. April 25, 1951. -- Committed to the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union and ordered to be printed". GovInfo.gov. U.S. Government Printing Office. April 25, 1951. pp. 105, 108, 109. Retrieved June 29, 2023.
  11. ^ Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance 1950–1963, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 469
  12. ^ Hay, Harry; Roscoe, William. Radically Gay : Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder, Beacon Press, 1996, p. 356
  13. ^ Levy, Dan (June 23, 2000). "Ever the Warrior: Gay rights icon Harry Hay has no patience for assimilation". San Francisco Chronicle. p. DD–8. Archived from the original on June 18, 2013.
  14. ^ John Gallagher, "Harry Hay's Legacy" (obituary) The Advocate, November 26, 2002; pp. 15; No. 877; ISSN 0001-8996
  15. ^ D'Emilio, p. 59
  16. ^ "An interview with Will Geer from 'The Waltons'". Archived from the original on June 7, 2011. Retrieved February 22, 2011.
  17. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 17144). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.