What a feast of riches it is acquainting oneself with the life and career of Will Geer (William Aughe Ghere, 1902-1978): actor, folksinger, political activist, and — wait for it — horticulturist. Like most Americans, I adored him during his late career Renaissance when he played Grandpa on The Waltons (1972-78) and appeared in movies like Jeremiah Johnson (1972). He seemed the very soul of rural America, in particular the good parts. He was kindly, gentle, wise, funny. And he was eccentric: with his long white hair, droopy mustache and penchant for wearing his overalls with only one strap buttoned. Onstage he had played Walt Whitman and Mark Twain; he clearly channeled those guys into his late career persona. What was not much publicized at the time (even though it was the hippy-dippy 1970s) was that he was bisexual and, for a time, a communist. I reiterate, because this is important and it needs to be heard and digested: Will Geer was simultaneously queer, communist and as American as apple pie.
I’ve been intrigued by his ancestry and haven’t found an answer yet. His mother’s maiden name (Aughe) seems to be Irish. His father’s — Ghere — is very rare and appears in only a few U.S. states. (Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania). There is a Van Ghere in New Jersey, and this leads me to suspect the name is Dutch. At any rate, Geer simplified the spelling when he went into show business. He was born onto a farm in Frankfort, Indiana, but then his father went to work for a railroad, so he spent much of his childhood shuffling between Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee. His grandfather, who’d built Frankfort’s first opera house with proceeds from the California Gold Rush, taught him the Latin names of all the local flora, inspiring him to pursue botany as his career. He took a degree in horticulture from the University of Chicago, and a masters at Columbia. Even over many decades as a successful performing artist, Geer never abandoned this part of his life. Later, he would pride himself on cultivating all of the plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
Geer began performing during summer hiatuses in his college years, acting in tent shows and on show boats on the Ohio River. Somehow he made his way into Minnie Maderne Fiske’s troupe in the ’20s, a pretty prestigious place to be. With Fiske’s company he played Pistol in The Merry Wives of Windsor on Broadway in 1928. Otis Skinner played Falstaff.
Mrs. Fiske died in 1932, cutting Geer loose in the depths of the Great Depression. He worked on ships for a time, and became involved with the maritime union. While he had previously been sympathetic to union causes, and sung folk songs with his fellow troupers, this experience seems to mark a new phase. Frankly, Geer had so much going on in the early to mid 30s that it’s tough to reconcile into a timeline. So I’ll list some of this stuff, with no ironclad guarantee of the chronological order:
- He was an extra in a few Hollywood movies (1932-35)
- He met Harry Hay while performing in a production at Tony Pastor’s Theatre Club. This was a theare founded in Los Angeles by John Decker and J. Belmar Hall in homage to the original Tony Pastor’s in New York, specializing in old time melodramas and the like. The venue opened in spring 1934 and only lasted a few months. At any rate, Hay was both a communist and a homosexual. The pair became lovers and Geer joined the communist party that year. Both were involved with the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike and the San Francisco General Strike. Hay later became a founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the U.S. (1950), and the Radical Faeries (1979), who rate a post here of their own. On my calendar for pride month!
- Also in 1934, Geer met Herta Ware at a maritime union benefit and the pair were married. This is what I mean by the timeline being tough to reconcile. The affair with Hay and the marriage to Ware seem to have happened around the same time, maybe even AT the same time. Hey, they were free-thinkers and bohemians! Ware was also a communist. She was the granddaughter of Mother Bloor (Ella Reeves Bloor, 1862-1951), an early suffragette, and a founding and key member of several left wing American parties, most notably the Communist Party USA. Ware also had an interesting career later in life, to which we will return. At any rate, the Geers had a real marriage. They had three biological children and were together for twenty years, then reunited again late in life.
At all events, after this whirlwind period things become more digestible again. In 1935, Ware and Geer were on Broadway in Let Freedom Ring. Geer’s career was largely focused on Broadway for over the next dozen years. Among his notable credits: he was in the original productions of The Cradle Will Rock (1937-38), Of Mice and Men (1937-38), and Flamingo Road (1946). He replaced Henry Hull as Jeeter in the original production of Tobacco Road in 1942. He was in the Depression era revue Sing Out the New (1938-39). During the ’30s he also participated in the Group Theatre’s summer retreats in Connecticut.
Throughout the ’30s and early ’40s, Geer was very active in bringing folk music to migrant labor camps and union halls throughout the country, where he encountered and collaborated with people like Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. In 1940 he narrated the short documentary Men and Dust, about Oklahoma coal miners,
Geer also acted on radio. He was a regular on the show Bright Horizon (1941-45) and was in the 1938 and 1944 broadcasts of Norman Corwin’s The Plot to Overthrow Christmas, among other credits.
From 1948 through 1951, Geer had a flourishing career as a supporting player in movies, enjoying larger parts than he had as an extra during the ’30s. Most of these films were westerns. You can see him in Comanche Territory, Winchester ’73, and Broken Arrow, for example, all from the busy year of 1950. Then, disaster: called to testify before the House Un-American Committee, he took the Fifth, and was blacklisted.
In 1951 Geer was forced to sell his ritzy Santa Monica home and purchase land in nearby Topanga Canyon. In time it became a sort of Shangri-La, an arts colony (Woody Guthrie had a shack on the place!), a self-sustaining vegetable farm, a school, and an open air theatre called Theatricum Botanicum, which is still a going concern, run by the Geer family. Geer’s daughter Ellen is the artistic director! (The history is a little convoluted. The Geers divorced in 1954 but remained friends. They rented the place for nearly 20 years, then reconvened in 1973 after Ware’s second husband died and Geer had a substantial new revenue stream from The Waltons. The place has been going continuously since 1973).
Geer returned to the stage in the mid 1950s, appearing in ten Broadway plays between 1955 and 1971. He also appeared for many seasons with Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut. He also appeared on Folkways records during this time period: Bound for Glory: Songs and Stories of Woody Guthrie (1956), Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall (1960), Mark Twain: Readings from the Stories and “Huckleberry Finn” (1961), and American History in Ballad and Song (1962).
Screen roles came slower but they came, you can seem him in Advise and Consent (1962), Black Like Me (1964), Seconds (1966), In Cold Blood (1967), The President’s Analyst (1967), Bandolero (1968), The Reivers (1969), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), and Dear Dead Delilah (1972).
Then came the blockbuster success of The Waltons. Edgar Bergen had played his character of Zebulon “Zeb” Walton in the original TV movie. Geer, who oddly resembled Bergen both in face and voice, was hired to replace him…and how lucky we were on account of that! Geer always had a twinkle in his eye as Grandpa Walton. He was sort of mischievous, and always being scolded by Grandma, played by Ellen Corby. Geer seemed the most authentic part of the show, and was easily my favorite character. He translated that success into many more film and TV roles. Two in particular I saw him in at the time bear mentioning: the made-for-TV disaster movie Hurricane (1974), which I wrote about here; and The Night That Panicked America (1975), which was about Orson Welles’ notorious War of the Worlds broadcast. (A bit of stunt casting, as Geer had worked with Welles and John Houseman on The Cradle Will Rock).
Geer died in 1978. Rather than replace him with another actor, the producers killed the character on the series as well. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (and by that I mean, millions of houses across America).
Interestingly, after Geer passed on, Helen Ware got a new career as a supporting player in films and on television. An early credit was Charles B. Griffith’s Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980). She was also in 2010 (1984), Cocoon (1985), Promised Land (1987), Cocoon: The Return (1988), Soapdish (1990), Species (1995), Practical Magic (1998), and Cruel Intentions (1999), among many others. Of her many TV roles, of particular note is her turn in the second episode in the very first season of E.R. (1994).
Some trivia, the Geer’s daughters both married well-known actors (both of whom, coincidentally, are best known for playing TV doctors): Ellen Geer was married to Ed Flanders of St. Elsewhere; Kate Geer was married to Larry Linville of M*A*S*H.
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