‘The Waltons’: How Did Grandpa Walton Actor Will Geer Die?

by Suzanne Halliburton

The Waltons creator called Will Geer a “Renaissance man.” And Geer brought all that gusto and life experience into portraying Zebulon Walton.

But rather than Zebulon, you may call Geer’s character, Grandpa. That’s how Americans knew him when he was part of The Waltons, an endearing family drama that was on the air from 1972-78.

Except Geer’s Grandpa didn’t make it through til the end of the series. Rather, Geer died in April, 1978 at the age of 76. He suffered respiratory failure. And Hamner addressed Geer’s death months later by having Grandpa die as well.

“He was a ‘Renaissance man’—he was a historian of the theater, and of virtually all the performing arts,” Earl Hamner, The Waltons creator told the New York Times after Geer after died. “He was joyous, he was vigorous, and he was inventive. I will miss him very much.”

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Grandpa Loved to Fish and Drink the Baldwin Sisters’ “Recipe’ on The Waltons

Zebulon was quite the character. He always pulled his fair share around the lumber mill. He loved to fish and be outdoors. And he loved his seven Waltons grandchildren. Viewers also knew that Grandpa liked to drink the Baldwin Sisters “recipe.”

The Waltons addressed Geer’s death in the premiere episode of season seven. Hamner called the episode The Empty Nest. The family mourned Grandpa’s death. And, Mary Ellen and Erin moved to Charlottesville.

The Waltons were only a small part of Geer’s impactful life. He also was a political activist and performed with folk singers Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives in the 1930s during the Great Depression. He literally lived through the time depicted in The Waltons when he was a young man.

Geer also was a communist. He showed up for the U.S. House Committee on Un‐American Activities in the 1950s. The New York Times said he wore a vivid purple shirt and smiled for the representatives. But then he declined to answer questions, citing the Fifth Amendment. Hollywood blacklisted him. In his later years, Geer did testify before Congress. He was against mandatory retirement ages, saying “it’s criminal, absolutely criminal, that old people should be put on the shelf.”

In 1972, at age 70, the same year he earned the role in The Waltons, Geer also was part of the movie, Jeremiah Johnson, which starred Robert Redford.

(Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Geer Liked It When Folks Called Him an Oracle

Geer was a master story teller. You could see that in The Waltons.

“You get a certain age and people look on you as an oracle,” Geer said in a 1970s-era interview. “If you live long enough, everything that could, will happen to you—even a television series.”

In the early spring of 1978, Geer spent more than a month in the hospital. His family knew his death was imminent. His ex wife, three children and two of his grandkids were by his bedside when he passed away.

The family gathered the next day and sang folk songs to honor his memory. Hamner was there, too.

“He was not the kind of man to grieve,” Hamner told the Times. “Or to let others grieve.”