There was a lilt to his voice and it made you want to listen...
- Woody Guthrie
Who was Woody Guthrie describing – some famous singer? No, his good friend, actor, botanist, and social activist Will Geer (1902-1978). Geer did a lot of things that would have surprised his television fans.
In the 1970s, Geer became a household name to US audiences for his memorable portrayal of Grandpa Zebulon in the long-running series The Waltons. In this show about a family of Virginia mountain farmers (with a family lumber mill), Geer portrayed a grandfather full of life, fun, and folksy wisdom. In real life, the actor possessed all of these qualities, and more. It was the 'more' that might have made the show's publicists uneasy: to this day, fan discussions of the ever-popular programme downplay Geer's activism, his blacklisting during the McCarthy era, and his influence on the beginnings of the gay rights movement.
Will Geer lived a very full life and touched a lot of people. He also left a botanical and theatrical legacy of some note. His story is worth consideration as an illustration of how one individual can inspire and influence many others.
Botany and Adventure
He was joyous, he was vigorous...
- Earl Hamner, Jr, creator of The Waltons
William Aughe Ghere was born in Frankfort, Indiana, but travelled quite a bit as a child. He got his love of plants from his own grandfather. Geer built on the knowledge he acquired at home by attending the University of Chicago and Columbia University, where he earned a master's degree in Botany. He enjoyed acting in student productions, although he didn't study drama: during university holidays, he performed on riverboats on the Ohio River. He also joined a summer travelling troupe run by a famous and ground-breaking actress, Minnie Maddern Fiske1. He and his fellow thespians would sometimes invade union halls and 'cause parties' by singing and performing.
When we got a ride, Will was always the one to sit with the driver, and before long whoever was driving the car would be on close terms with him.
- Ed Robbin, Woody Guthrie and Me, p 104
In 1928, after graduation, Geer and friend Ed Robbin hitchhiked to Montreal, where they signed aboard a cattle boat and worked their way across the Atlantic to Liverpool. When Robbin found the unfamiliar work difficult, Geer tutored him in agricultural skills. Travel was part of Geer's life in those days: he toured with the Fiske company, or he hitchhiked, or he worked on merchant ships. In between watching the miles roll by, he acted. His first role was as Pistol in Merry Wives of Windsor. Geer became an accomplished Shakespearean actor.
This Land Is My Land
He's the only man I know that knows the vegetables by their maiden names. When he shouts, the vegetables come a-running and jump in the stewpot.
- Woody Guthrie2
It was during his travels, in 1939, that Geer met folksinger Woody Guthrie. They had a lot in common: wandering, folk singing, a penchant for supporting unpopular causes, and a love for humanity in all its variety. Geer introduced Guthrie to several people who were influential in the folk singer's life: Pete Seeger, for one, and novelist John Steinbeck. Steinbeck remarked, 'Took me years to write Grapes of Wrath and that little squirt tells the whole story in just a few stanzas.' He was referring to Guthrie's Ballad of Tom Joad.
Geer and Guthrie toured government work camps in California and sang to Dust Bowl refugees. Some of their work can be enjoyed in the Smithsonian Folkways record Bound for Glory. Geer often performed narrations based on Guthrie's words.
Geer was a lifelong supporter of Guthrie's work. So convinced was he of its significance to American cultural history that when he turned 75, he allowed his friends to stage a 'little get-together'. The 'get-together' turned out to be a fundraiser for research into Huntington's chorea, the genetically-acquired disease that felled Woody Guthrie. The evening was all about Guthrie, not Geer.
Red and Queer?
At one point, I'm talking to Will Geer, the guy who was The Waltons' grandpa. He was also my lover, and he introduced me to the Communist Party.
- Harry Hay, in conversation with Anne-Marie Cusac, The Progressive, 9 August, 2016
Will Geer, subject of the quote above, also married and became a father. His wife, actress Herta Ware, was as passionately activist as he was. Both joined the Communist Party. This caused them no end of trouble during the McCarthy era, when Geer refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was blacklisted. This stalled his otherwise thriving film career. In response, the couple started their own theatre and actors' workshop for other victims of the blacklist in Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. The pair divorced in 1954, but remained close all their lives, a fact attested to by Ellen Geer, herself a famous actress and one of their three children.
Harry Hay, author of the quote above, was close to Will Geer in the early 1930s. He credited Geer with awakening his desire for social change and his interest in the Communist Party USA. Although a social activist, Geer was not particularly interested in gay activism, and said so to Hay. Hay, however, was: he founded the Mattachine Foundation in 1950, and had every bit as much trouble with Senator Joseph McCarthy as the other 'red' Hollywood people. The HUAC was just as opposed to gay people as it was to communism.
During the 1950s, it was hard for Will Geer to find work. He had not only been a communist, but he'd even been to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. He closed his workshop theatre and went on the road. As the McCarthy era ended, he was cast by director Otto Preminger in the 1962 film Advise and Consent. His working drought over, Geer began appearing more and more on television.
Grandpa Walton's Theatricum Botanicum
The world's oldest hippie.
- Helen Hayes3' description of Will Geer
In 1973, Will Geer and his family reopened the theatre in Topanga Canyon, naming it the Theatricum Botanicum in honour of a famous herbal book, the 1640 Theatrum Botanicum. On the grounds, Geer organised his pet project: he grew every plant mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. The Theatricum Botanicum, a non-profit organisation, offered free performances of Shakespeare, as well as concerts by old friends such as Pete Seeger and folk singer Burl Ives, in its outdoor theatre.
People wanted to attend. Not only were the performances themselves good, but Will Geer had suddenly acquired a new fan base. The reason was television. Starting in 1972, Geer appeared weekly as Grandpa Zebulon Walton, the merry sage of Walton's Mountain, fictional home of the Walton clan. Audiences were delighted by Earl Hamner, Jr's vivid and warm-hearted portrayal of a rural Virginia family during the Depression. In the 70s, as now, the most common comment was, 'Life was simpler then.' Little did those audiences know how un-simple (and rich) were the lives of the actors who played out Hamner's family story – which was not as simplistic as the audience seemed to think, either4. Geer brought his own store of imagination and joi de vivre to the role of Zeb, a man in his seventies who still loved his often testy wife Esther with all the passion of youth. The acerbic Esther was played by Ellen Corby, whose character would have strongly disapproved of her off-screen chain-smoking5. Two of the adult actors were struggling with alcoholism; one was an ex-clergyman. All, including the child actors who grew up along with the show, attested to the positive influence of the group, and Will Geer, on their lives. There was as much going on in that series behind the scenes as on-screen.
Both Ellen Corby and Will Geer had health problems during the run of The Waltons. In 1976, Corby suffered a stroke. This was written into the story; she eventually returned to the show. However, Will Geer died on 22 April, 1978, just before filming was to begin on another season of The Waltons. His death was commemorated in the series' storyline, and his personality remained a presence on Walton's Mountain. His fictional and real-life families continued to honour his memory as his ashes were scattered on the grounds of the Theatricum Botanicum.
More About Will Geer
I could never keep up with the mail on his desk. Pop would get letters from people of all ages from all over the country who wished that he was their grandfather.
- Ellen Geer
Daughter Ellen Geer continues to direct the Theatricum Botanicum, which stages Shakespeare plays and offers acting workshops.
Lore about The Waltons abounds on the internet and Youtube. This video features reminiscences by Earl Hamner, Jr, on the occasion of his receiving the Will Geer Humanitarian Award. It is worth watching.
The 1940 film Fight for Life was the last public film sponsored by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, so it can be watched for free. It features Will Geer in a leading role as an obstetrician. There are small, uncredited appearances by Woody Guthrie and his infant son William. A word before viewing: this film may be disturbing. In fact, documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz offered it to the government in order to bypass the notoriously finicky censorship of the Hays Office6. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approved of its message, which was based on the pioneer efforts of medical people in Chicago.
Why is Fight for Life shocking? For one thing, it's about doctors helping poor mothers to give birth in tenement apartments in city slums. If the sight of a doctor killing cockroaches before scrubbing up in a Depression-era sink bothers you, you might want to close your eyes. Lorentz and his actors didn't, which earns our admiration. For another thing, medical practices in 1940 might strike today's audience as bordering on the uncanny. The fetoscope may have made its first cinema appearance here. You are warned. There are also scenes of incredible poverty in the inner city which are sobering to the modern eye: Chicago as Third World metropolis. This movie had a serious purpose, as acknowledged by the reviewer for the New York Times.
Want to hear Will Geer sing? In this clip from the 1974 Tony Awards Geer performs a medley from The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein's controversial 1937 musical. The Cradle Will Rock was produced as part of the Federal Theatre Project, a WPA7 project directed by 21-year-old Orson Welles. Will Geer was in the original cast of this Brechtian attack on the state of the world, which was so 'radical' that the government's watchdogs padlocked the theatre on opening night. Producer John Houseman had to move the play venue 21 blocks away and lead the audience there on foot, and when Actors' Equity refused to let their members appear on stage, the entire cast performed opening night from the house. It was a gloriously leftist extravaganza, what people in those days called 'agitprop'. The 1999 Tim Robbins film Cradle Will Rock, dealing with the event, is also highly to be recommended.