Will Geer Dies at 76 After Career As Character Actor for Six Decades
By PRANAY GUPTEAPRIL 24, 1978
The article as it originally appeared.
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April 24, 1978, Page 8
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Will Geer, the character actor whose performances spanned that of an earthy, carefree Georgian in the play “Tobacco Road” to a crusty grandfather in the television series “The Waltons” a generation later, died Saturday of a respiratory ailment in Los Angeles. He was 76 years old
Mr. Geer's career, which covered six decades, began in tent shows and on ‐riverboats It took him through not only such Broadway shows as “Tobacco Road” but also through countless Shakespearean roles.
It was a career, too, that included celebrated portrayals of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
“He was a ‘Renaissance man'—he was a historian of the theater, and of virtually all the performing arts,” Earl Hamner, the novelist and producer of “The Wal- tons,” said of Mr. Geer yesterday. “Hi was joyous, he was vigorous, and he wa inventive. I will miss him very much.’
Mr. Geer's role in the award‐winnirq television series, Mr. Hamner said, wa! at its “very heart.” The show is about a poor Virginia farm family during the Depression and World War II, and Mr. Hamner said he was unable to say how future episodes would be constructed.
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Mr. Hamner, on whose autobiographical book, “The Homecoming,” the television series was based, recalled in an interview how much of a raconteur Mr. Geer was.
It seemed at times, Mr. Hamner said, that every experience of his six decades as a performer had been locked into Mr. Geer's memory to be recalled in conversations with colleagues after the day's shooting had been completed, or even during breaks when gawking tourists would travel through the set.
In fact, it very much pleased Mr. Geer to be regarded as a master storyteller and sage of sorts. “You get a certain age and people look on you as an oracle,” he would say, with his eyes twinkling and his cheeks pinched up in a manner :hat television audiences found endearng.
“If you live long enough, everything ;cod will happen to you—even a televi;ion series,” Mr. Geer sometimes would Ldd.
While “The Waltons,” which has been on the air for six years now, brought him acclaim in the form of an Emmy award in 1975 and financial rewards in the shape of a six‐figure annual salary, Mr. Geer had enjoyed good fortune in television for a great many years.
He had, for instance, appeared in such shows as “Mannix,” “Gunsmoke,” “Mission : Impossible,” and “Bonanza.” He had also been a regular on “The Young Rebel” series. And he performed in movies such as “In Cold Blood,” and “The Reivers.”
And in nearly all of these appearances, Mr. Geer had played the role of crusty but kindly men, men who seemed gruff but were really quite sentimental at heart.
To a remarkable degree, Mr. Geer's friends said yesterday, such roles were representative of the man he was in private.
He was known, for instance, to give money freely to aspiring actors who wen just starting out. And yet, he woulc always advise them: “Don't depend or others to get work. Get out and do yourself.”
He would contribute to a variety of causes—most recently, Mr. Geer was involved in promoting the welfare of the aged and appeared before a House Select Committee hearing in Washington to testify against mandatory retirement agc measures. “It'3s criminal, absolutely criminal that old people should be put on the shelf,” he told the committee.
Refusing to regard himself as “old,” Mr. Geer toured the country to give lec- tures at colleges and universities. In fact, he had helped establish repertory theaters at many institutions—such as the University of Michigan—and kept in contact with developments there. He was also associated with Shakespeare “festivals” in many parts of the United States, most notably in Stratford, Conn.
Happily conceding he was footloose, Mr. Geer would often say that his wanderlust was inherited. He was born on a farm in Frankfort, Ind., to a mild Hoosier farmer and his wife, but when Will Geer was 7 years old, the father abandoned the farmer's life for a career as a railroad engineer.
• And so, for most of the next 10 years, Will Geer was trundled from one railroad center to another in Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee. In later years, he would wonder how he ever managed to complete his school studies.
But he was a good student, and he went on to the University of Chicago to major in plant and animal husbandry. From there it was on to Columbia University for a master's degree.
His education proved useful because Mr. Geer taught vegetable growing during World War I and II, during the Ko‐, rean War, and during the 1950's when, like so many other actors suspected of having leftist leanings, he was blacklisted by Hollywood producers.
As a result of the blacklisting, Mr. Geer was unable to obtain roles in films for many years. He vigorously denied that he had leftist sympathies. When asked to testify before the House Committee on Un‐American Activities, he appeared in a rich purple shirt, flashed broad smiles, and cited the Fifth Amendment, which protects a person against giving self‐incriminating testimony.
If there was a connection to the “left” in Mr. Geer's life at that time, it was through his wife, Herta Ware, the actress, who was a granddaughter of Ella Reeve (Mother) Bloor, who was a suffragist and a founder of the American Communist Party. Mr. Geer had met Miss Ware in 1935 in New York City and they had acted in a play together. They had three children and were divorced a few years ago. But they remained close friends and taught acting classes together.
Will Geer, however, had never had any acting lessons. His first acting jobs were with troupes that performed on steamboats on the Ohio River during summer vacations from college.
And it was during summer vacations, too, that he met Minnie Maddern Fiske and joined her troupe. The Fiske touring company, Mr. Geer would often say, was the best thing that could have happened to him at that stage of his life. He and other youthful members of the company went to union halls and “cause parties,” leg ring new ballads and singing ones they already knew.
After Mrs. Fiske's death, in 1931, there were some uncertain years for Mr. Geer. At one point he worked as a steward on ships of the Panama‐Pacific Line, and at another he was active in maritime union causes in San Francisco.
In 1935, he went to the Soviet Union to appear in a film there, and when he returned after a few months he embarked on a series of appearances not only on Broadway but also in New England textile towns, the coal regions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the back roads of the Deep South.
It was during these travels that he met Woody Guthrie, the balladeer, and it was a friendship that continued until the end of Mr. Guthrie's life, a few years ago. Mr. Geer, too, was a folksinger of some repute, and he and Mr. Guthrie sometimes sane together.
If Woody Guthrie was a major influence in Will Geer's life, so was William Shakespeare. Mr. Geer recalled once that his first professional role on stage was as Pistol in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” And years later, Mr. Geer even wrote a book on the 1,000 plants referred to in Shakespeare's plays.
His interest in plants and the theater led him to start a special sort of repertory theater in rustic Topanga Canyon in California's San Fernando Valley. Situated in a rather isolated area, the outfit was named he Theatricum Botanicum. Workshops would be held there for young actors, and Mr. Geer would provide coaching and counsel.
These would not be just sessions about the theater. Mr. Geer, often joined by Herta Ware, his former wife, and their three children, along with four adopted ones, would read from Shakespeare and discuss philosophy and psychology. One of Mr. Geer's favorite passages to his associates was : “You don't have to get down on your knees. You can bend your head and be graceful—like a field of wheat.”
And on Sunday afternoons, under the eucalyptus and oak trees of the area, there would be folksinging sessions.
One such session had been scheduled, as usual, for yesterday afternoon. Accurding to Mr. Hamner, the television producer, the Geer family and their friends kept their appointment and sang together.
“He was not the kind of man to grieve —or to let others grieve,” Mr. Hamner said.
When Mr. Geer died on Saturday evening at Midway Hospital in Los Angeles, three of his children, two grandchildren and Miss Ware were at his bedside. They had known for days that his respIratory ailment, for which he was admitted to the hospital nearly a month ago, was worsening, and the group would sing folktunes composed by Mr. Geer and Woody Guthrie, and read from Robert Frost.
Funeral services were planned for next Sunday at the Theatricum Botanicum. Burial will be in a grove where Mr. Geer often walked.www.nytimes.com/1978/04/24/archives/will-geer-dies-at-76-after-career-as-character-actor-for-six.html