Earl Hamner Jr. felt Grandpa Walton's presence on set long after Will Geer passed away
Geer's personality and heart "permeated" the set even after he was gone.
Image: The Everett Collection
Few characters are remembered as fondly as Grandpa and Grandma Walton. The two made a great pair, as feisty as they were loving. Their presence during the show's early seasons provided guidance and stability, not to mention many hilarious exchanges, to a family struggling through hard times.
Sadly, time caught up with elderly actors Ellen Corby and Will Geer. Corby suffered a stroke and had to miss many episodes. She recovered and her health problems were written into the show. Geer passed away suddenly after filming the end of season six. Show creator Earl Hamner Jr. decided to incorporate the tragic event into the series.
The two-part, season-seven premiere "The Empty Nest" picks up six months after Zeb Walton's death, the family still stricken with grief. In an emotional scene made even more heart-wrenching by the real-world context, the children tend to Grandpa Zeb's grave on Walton's Mountain. Grandma states that her beloved Zeb will live on through all of them.
In a way, that sentiment also applied to actor Will Geer. While not actually related to anyone in the show's cast, he was everyone's grandfather on set. Earl Hamner Jr. told the Archive of American Television, "He didn't really portray Grandpa, he was Grandpa."
Hamner also related how, after Geer’s death, he felt the jovial actor's presence in spirit. "He permeated the set with his personality, with his love, with things that he did," Hamner remembered. "He planted a rose garden, he planted a vegetable garden. How many people do that on a movie set?"
Hamner compared Geer's lasting effect on the Waltons set to someone like Thomas Jefferson's on Monticello. "There are certain people whose personality is so great, so forceful, so unique that they leave an imprint on wherever they live," Hamner said, "Will was that kind of person."
Hamner described Geer as "a big, mischievous, fun-loving guy" who was always ready with a joke or a story. Though he died in 1978, Will Geer's legacy lives on in the many great things he left behind — not least of which is his cherished portrayal of Grandpa Zeb on The Waltons.