March 9, 1902– Will Geer
Want to really freak out those Conservative Christians and the White Nationalists? Let them in on a little secret: Grandpa Walton was a queer and a Socialist. There was some gay stuff happening on Walton Mountain, for certain. I bet this little bit of information just might make lil’ ol’ Miss Sarah Huckabee Sanders‘ brain fry.
Will Geer made a significant impact on the world of American Theater, but he will be known forever as Zebulon Walton on CBS‘s The Waltons. The Waltons was a television series created by Earl Hamner, Jr., who was no sissy. It was based on his book Spencer’s Mountain, and a film version from 1963 of the same name. The show is centered on a big loving family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and then World War II.
It began with a television movie entitled The Homecoming: A Christmas Story that was broadcast during the Holiday Season 1971. It received such good ratings that that it became a regular series beginning in September 1972, running for nine seasons. After it was canceled in 1981, NBC picked it up as three “television event” specials in 1982, with three more in the 1990s.
The Waltons was the story of the family of John Walton Jr, known as John-Boy, played by Richard Thomas, and his six siblings, his parents, and his grandparents, Zebulon, played by Geer, and Esther. John-Boy was the oldest of the kids, 17-years old when the series starts.
The Waltons was wholesome and moving, without being sappy or sentimental. CBS ordered it for the fall 1972 schedule in response to US Congressional hearings about the quality of television. No one connected with it really thought it would last more than one season. The network gave The Waltons the worst time slot, opposite two of the most popular programs: The Flip Wilson Show on NBC and The Mod Squad on ABC. Instead, it was in the Top Ten shows for a decade, winning The Peabody Award and 22 Emmy Awards, including a win for Geer in 1975. Each episode ended with the salutation, “Goodnight, John-Boy”, which entered the national lexicon.
The series provided a great role for Geer, but he had an acting career that spanned six decades. He began performing in tent shows and on river boats as a kid, but it eventually included Broadway plays, films, television, roles in Shakespeare plays, and notable portrayals of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. He received a Tony Award nomination for his leading role in a musical for 110 In The Shade (1963).
Geer was an arresting figure at 6′ 2′ and 230 pounds. He labeled himself as a “folklorist”, stating:
I can’t vouch for every last picayunish detail of my stories; but they’re mostly true. Mostly.
Baby Boomer fans of The Waltons might have found it interesting that he was also a lifelong political radical:
A rebel is just against things for rebellions sake. I’m a radical. Someone who goes to the roots, which is the Latin derivation of radical.
The First Lady of American Theatre, Miss Helen Hayes, described him as “the world’s oldest hippie”. He was a friend of folk music legend Woody Guthrie. Along with Burl Ives, they toured the country during the Depression singing at the 1,463 government work camps.
His diverse film credits include Westerns: Comanche Territory (1950); Winchester ’73 (1950) as Wyatt Earp; Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The Reivers (1969); and more modern stories like Seconds (1966), where he is super creepy with Rock Hudson, and In Cold Blood (1966). Before The Waltons, Geer appeared on television with guest spots on shows like Mannix, Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii 5-0, and as a series regular on The Young Rebels (1970-72). On his resume it must have listed “crusty” under “skills. He usually played irascible, but kindly men, roles that reflected his own life.
Geer combined his passions for theatre and horticulture by forming a most unusual venue on the grounds at his rustic home in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon. He named it The Theatricum Botanicum. He held workshops for young actors and presented outdoor productions of Shakespeare. I once attended a magical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Geer as Oberon, presented at twilight on the summer solstice in 1974. The whole thing was lit only by candle light under the eucalyptus and oak trees.
In the early 1950s, Geer was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Committee On Un-American Activities (HUAC). Geer found it nearly impossible to get work, but he did manage to make Salt Of The Earth (1953) which was produced, directed, written by, and starred other blacklisted Hollywood figures and told the story of a miners’ strike in New Mexico from a pro-union standpoint. The film was denounced by the United States House Of Representatives, and the FBI investigated the film’s financing.
Geer was married from 1932-1952 to Herta Ware, a fellow actor and Socialist. They had three children, but they eventually divorced. Geer enjoyed a longtime romance with noted Gay Rights pioneer Harry Hay. Hay was the founder of one the first Gay Rights organizations, The Mattachine Society in 1950, and he also co-founded another kind of group, a brotherhood built around the idea of a spiritual tribe of gay men that we call The Radical Faeries.
I don’t know if you have ever spotted a faerie. They are an unofficial, anti-authoritarian, loose network of faggot farmers, gay artists, drag queens, sprites and activists who see LGBTQ folk as a distinct and separate people from the rest of society, with their own culture and spirituality. The Radical Fairies believe that they are uniquely ordained to regain the lost balance of the larger human community on our pretty, spinning blue orb. You might think you don’t know a Radical Faerie, but they are able to walk among us without being revealed.
Geer and Hay were bound together by leftist politics and by their monthly all-male parties at Geer’s beach house in Solana Beach near San Diego.
Ironically, I met him after that production of that Shakespeare play about fairies in June 1974. In the moonlight, we sat in a circle with a few other gay men and passed around a joint. He put his hand on my thigh and I sighed. Grandpa Walton was groping me!
Geer left this world soon after, taking that final curtain call in 1978. The death of his character was written into The Waltons script. America cried.
Geer’s ashes are buried at his Theatricum Botanicum. The theatre and garden are open to the public. They have a full schedule of plays in repertory this summer. The Summer 2019 season includes The Skin Of Our Teeth by gay writer Thornton Wilder; An Enemy Of The People, which is by Henrik Ibsen, not Eric Trump; Twelfth Night and, of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare;and they present live music concerts including an annual tribute to the songs of Pete Seeger. The 2017 event is Saturday, April 2.
In a zany footnote about The Waltons, Grandma Walton, who was as a fussy, God-fearing woman who didn’t even approve of dancing because it might lead to temptation, and stated that “If the good Lord had intended us to smoke He would have put a chimney in our heads!”, was played on the series by Ellen Corby who smoked and danced and was, in real life, a lesbian! Something was going on Walton Mountain!