Late actor Will Geer had a prominent career as an actor and musician, and his daughter Ellen Geer not only followed in his footsteps but is also keeping his legacy alive at 80.
From 1972 to 1978, Will Geer was everyone’s favorite grandfather for his outstanding portrayal of Grandpa Zeb Walton in “The Waltons,” one of that decade’s most popular TV series.
Even though he passed away in April 1978, one of his children, actress Ellen Geer, is doing her best to keep his memory and legacy alive. Here’s everything you need to know about Will’s life and daughter.
Geer’s rise to stardom was unusual. Born in March 1902, he was mainly raised by his grandfather in his native Indiana. Probably inspired by his grandad’s experience, Geer attended the University of Chicago and earned a master’s degree in botany.
In the early 30s, with a college degree already under his belt, he started his acting career with appearances in “The Misleading Lady,” “Spitfire,” “The Fight For Life,” and “Deep Waters.”
Around the same time, he married his first and only wife, actress Herta Ware. The couple had three children, son Thad and daughters Kate (who married “M*A*S*H” star Larry Linville) and Ellen Geer.
The most memorable role of Geer’s over 40-year-long career, Grandpa Zeb in “The Waltons,” came later in life as he booked it when he was already 70 years old and died before the series finale.
Speaking of Ellen, she was born in August 1941, inherited the acting gene from her parents, and looked just like Geer. She once credited her famous dad for introducing her to acting and Shakespeare.
Ellen once confessed that theater was always part of her family’s life as Geer would pick for her and her siblings a role in any of Shakespeare’s plays and ask them to recite a line or do a speech.
[Will] earned money selling plants and tickets to workshop productions of Shakespeare.
In the late 1960s, Ellen started appearing in films and TV shows. In the early 70s, after making her acting debut as a nun in “Petulia,” she had a regular part on “The Jimmy Stewart Show” and a supporting role in “Harold and Maude.” In recent years, she has appeared in “NCIS” and “Better Things.”
Geer and Ellen got the opportunity to work together in “The Waltons” in the 1972 episode “The Ceremony.” In it, a family of Jewish refugees who escaped from Nazi Germany settled on Walton’s Mountain and hid their faith.
Eventually, Grandpa Zeb emphasized the importance of staying true to oneself. Ellen worked on another episode of “The Waltons” in 1980, two years after her father passed away.
Ellen kept exploring her creative side and became a director, producer, and playwright as years went by. To create stories, she found inspiration in her family’s background, including Geer’s blacklisting.
Geer and his wife were left-wing activists, so they were targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities shortly after World War II when they tried to root out communists.
During that time, Ellen said her family moved to what they called the “Geer Gardens” in Topanga, California. There, they earned money selling plants and tickets to workshop productions of Shakespeare.
Given the difficult situation, the Geer Gardens became a “haven” for actors, writers, technicians, and other essential theater workers who couldn’t get jobs.
While Geer was doing a positive act for others and also earning money for his family, he was slowly collapsing, revealed Ellen. Luckily, he regained his strength and was not bitter toward the people who “ratted on him.”
In the seventies, when things settled down, Geer and his wife founded the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in their Topanga property. They combined the actor’s passion for botany and his successful acting career by cultivating all plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
The first show was in 1973, and it was Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” Since then, the Theatricum Botanicum has been operational, with Ellen serving as a teacher and decision-maker.
Coming back to Ellen’s playwrighting career, she wrote about her family’s experience after Geer was blacklisted in the play called “… and the Dark Cloud Came,” which premiered at the Theatricum Botanicum in 1995.
Most members of the Geer family – including Ellen’s son, mother, and half-sister – had essential roles in the play, and she once explained that she decided to write about such a challenging period because she had not told her kids much about her childhood.
As expected, the coronavirus pandemic hit them hard.
Ellen, who confessed that her family was “sound, warm, and wonderful” before Geer’s blacklisting, pointed out that while her parents were politically active, they wouldn’t just pass on their beliefs through didacticism.
Instead, they would let their kids learn things on their own. In Will’s case, he would frequently tell his kids to read a book like “Utopia” by Sir Thomas More.
Thanks to Geer and Ware’s parenting, Ellen and her siblings developed a “real care” about the United States and the working-class people through osmosis, not politics.
KEEPING WILL’S LEGACY ALIVE
At the moment, Ellen is 80 years old and still trying to keep her famous father’s legacy alive by performing at the Theatricum Botanicum. It is now part of the actors and stage managers union and offers educational programs for kids and adults. She explained:
“We have an Academy of Classics, and we also run School Days, a field trip of Shakespeare, and classes for youth in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
Even though it has always been a professional theater, Theatricum Botanicum is also a non-profit organization able to receive grants and donations. In fact, it was through a grant that the educational programs began.
As expected, the coronavirus pandemic hit them hard, and they had to stop working for months and let go of some staff members, including artists and teachers. Fortunately, they got back on track and are working on new plays and teaching again. Way to go!