March 9, 1902– Will Geer
Want to really freak-out those Conservative Christians? 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 will make Kim Davis’ brain fry.
Geer made a significant impact on the world of American Theater, but he will be known forever as Zebulon Walton. Geer’s acting career lasted for six decades. He began performing in tent shows and on river boats, but it eventually included Broadway plays, films, television appearances, roles in Shakespearean plays, and notable portrayals of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. He received a Tony Award nomination for his leading role in the musical for 110 In The Shade.
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.”
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, 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 mostly at government work camps.
His diverse film credits include: Comanche Territory (1950), Winchester ‘73 (1950), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Reivers (1969), Seconds (1966) with Rock Hudson, and In Cold Blood (1966). Before The Waltons (1971-1981), Geer appeared on television with guest spots on shows like Mannix, Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii 5-0, and as a regular on The Young Rebels (1970-72). He usually played crusty 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 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, at twilight on the summer solstice, lit 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. Geer found it difficult to get work, but he did make Salt Of The Earth (1953) which was produced, directed, written, 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.
He was married from 1932-1952 to Herta Ware, a fellow actor and Socialist. They had three children, but 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. Hay also cofounded another kind of group, a brotherhood built around the idea of a spiritual tribe of gay men called The Radical Faeries. Geer and Hay were bound together by leftist politics and by their monthly all-male parties at his 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.
Geer’s ashes are buried at his Theatricum Botanicum. The theatre and garden are open to the public and offers classes to actors of all ages and presents live music concerts including an annual tribute to the songs of Pete Seeger. The 2016 event is this Saturday.