Will Geer, aka Grandpa on The Waltons, could turn a sweet phrase. It’s why some folks called him a Renaissance Man. Others referred to him as an oracle.
Maybe he had such a beautiful way with words because he performed and traveled with legendary folk singers Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives during the Great Depression. Or maybe it was because he was an excellent observer of human behavior. Otherwise, how else do you explain this description of The Waltons, the heartwarming family drama that entranced us from 1972-81. Earl Hamner created the series and based it on his own life. And the Saturday Evening Post put the Waltons on its cover in November 1973 for its Thanksgiving issue.
“I’ve always loved Earl Hamner’s books,” Geer told the Post. “This show of his has a sweetness about it. Not saccharine sentimentality, but the kind of sweetness which to my mind is associated with good sweet corn, fresh and tasty.”
He’s talking about the kind of corn you buy at the local farmers market on a Saturday morning. It doesn’t need any fancy spices. Just add some salt to the boiling water, then slather the corn with butter. It’s old-fashioned perfection, just like The Waltons, which still lives in the reruns of classic TV.
Hamner also loved the actor who played Zebulon Walton, John Sr’s father who loved all seven of his grandkids from John Boy to Elizabeth. When Geer died in 1978, Hamner lauded his memory.
“He was a ‘Renaissance man’—he was a historian of the theater, and of virtually all the performing arts,” Hamner told told the New York Times. “He was joyous, he was vigorous, and he was inventive. I will miss him very much.”
Geer appeared in 145 episodes, which aired from 1972-78. When he died of respiratory failure, April 22, 1978, Hamner wrote Geer’s death into the next season’s premiere. He called the episode “The Empty Nest” and it ran Sept. 21.
As per tradition, The Waltons started with this narration from John Boy:
For as long as any of us could remember our house had stood in the shadow of Waltons Mountain. We counted time by its seasons, growing up and growing old, and even those of us who went away never really left it. It was a fitting place for my grandfather to be buried, and in the six months since his death we had learned to live with our grief. We never looked up at the mountain without feeling his strength. We were to need it. The year was 1941 and there was a tension in the air that threatened to pull us apart.
Geer worked right up until his last month of life. And that’s how he wanted it. He’d always been a political activist. So it was no surprise that he testified before Congress and offered his opinion on mandatory retirement ages. “It’s criminal, absolutely criminal, that old people should be put on the shelf,” Geer told Congress.
He earned the part on The Waltons when he was 70. And he certainly brought authenticity to the role. After all, he lived through the Great Depression, although he was a much younger man. On the series, he helped run the lumber mill with his son and he had a great love for hunting and fishing. At night, you might see him sampling some of the Baldwin sisters’ “recipe.”
As The Waltons premiered, Geer also earned a role Jeremiah Johnson, which starred Robert Redford as a 19th century mountain man.
“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.”