Will Geer was born William Aughe Ghere in Frankfort, Indiana, to Katherine (Aughe), a teacher, and Roy Aaron Ghere, a postal worker. Will admired his grandfather, a man who said hello to trees by their Latin names and who had used what he brought back to Indiana from the California gold rush to build Frankfort’s first opera house. Will pursued a college major in botany, from Chicago through a Master’s degree at Columbia, but ultimately gave in to his need to perform. Starting with touring company tent shows and river boats, his six-decade career included Broadway, movies, television; many Shakespeare roles; one-man performances as Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. His best known role was his last, Zebulon Walton, grandpa in the long-running television series The Waltons (1971). Less well-known was his life-long role as a political agitator and radical (“Someone who goes to the roots, which is the Latin derivation of radical”) and folklorist/folksinger – he toured U.S. government work camps in the 1930s, singing with Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs. In 1951, he formed the “Theatricum Botanicum,” a repertory theater in Topanga Canyon, California, where he not only coached actors but also encouraged outdoor philosophical discussion and, of course, folksinging. At his deathbed, his family sang “This Land Is Your Land” and recited Robert Frost poems. His ashes lie in a corner of the Shakespearean garden on the grounds of his Theatricum Botanicum.
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