Will Geer was a true man of nature. “The Waltons” actor was known to bring bags of wildflower seeds to the set, casually throwing them about between takes. He started an outdoor theater company called Theatricum Botanicum, where he taught acting and philosophy in the hills of Topanga Canyon, California.
But most impressively of all, the man who played Grandpa Zeb Walton earned a Master’s degree in Botany from Columbia.
On more than one occasion, Will Geer’s passion for and education in the subject of plants aided him in the role of Grandpa on “The Waltons.” After all, he was playing a character who had grown up in the mountains of Virginia at the turn of the 20th century. Therefore, it made sense that he’d be familiar with the plants there.
Mary Ellen Walton actress Judy Norton recalled an episode where Geer’s knowledge was put on full display. It was called “The Long Night.” And it featured some scenes that saw Amy and Elizabeth asking Grandpa Walton about types of flowers.
“Part of the subplot with Amy and Elizabeth also involves Grandpa. And frequently he is talking about the plants and the flowers,” Norton said in a video on her YouTube channel. “They ask him about the wildflowers that they picked. And he names them all off for them. Will in real life had a degree in botany, so he was very familiar with all of the various different plants around the set and the backlot of the studio. And he could tell us what all the names were, and their Latin names.”
Will Geer’s Botany Knowledge Was a Perfect Fit for His Character on ‘The Waltons’
Will Geer played Grandpa Zeb Walton on “The Waltons” from 1972 to his death in 1978. Over the course of 143 episodes, he played the Walton family patriarch convincingly. Because of his background, it’s hard to imagine the show casting anyone better for the role.
In a 1974 interview with TV Guide, Will Geer talked about he was basically born to be on “The Waltons.”
“My Indiana boyhood was right out of The Waltons,” Geer said. “We’d go for walks and he’d [his own grandfather] say hello to the trees by their Latin names.”
It was those walks that inspired Geer to pursue a degree in botany. And in that pursuit, he couldn’t have a known a role was waiting for him that would have him playing a version of his own grandfather in his 70s.
Judy Norton continued talking about how Will Geer’s background made him perfect the role.
“So this was right up his alley to be talking about this. And it sort of made sense for Grandpa, who had grown up on the mountain,” Norton said. “And had probably planted a fair number of these. At one point, you see him potting or repotting some azaleas that he’s going to try to sneak into the hospital for Grandma.”