Called by his peers the world’s oldest hippie, Will Geer had an imposing figure even in the literal sense of the word: he stood 6’2’’ tall and weighed 230 pounds. You couldn’t have missed him even if you wanted when he was on the set.
But why was he called like that? As he says in one of his interviews, he was kind of a folklorist, which basically meant that everything he said and everything he was came from his life-long experience. But then again it also meant that he enjoyed being a rebel, breaking all the rules and setting himself apart from all the others.
Will Geer wasn’t the rebel portrayed by James Dean, but he had his own principles and he stuck to them no matter what. And his principles came not just from what he had lived, but also from what he was taught when being a child. In his words, that meant recognizing one’s roots.
And this can be seen even in The Waltons, where he portrayed Grandpa Zebulon ‘Zeb’ Walton. As writer Earl Hamner said, this character was a mix between his own two grandparents, in which tradition and rite became intertwined with an active lifestyle and the joy of life.
But on the other hand, these were just the writings. Will Greer said that the character of Zeb was based on these writings, but on something else too. As the actor said, Zeb was a mix between the characters described by Earl Hamner, himself as he was in the ‘70’s and his own grandfather.
In a way, it can be said that this portrayal was in fact the archetype of what all grandparents should be like. Will Greer remembered that he had a happy childhood, a Tom Sawyer-like life filled with adventures when he was young. And this is what he wanted to bring to The Waltons: a grandfather that was, in fact, a Tom Sawyer grown old.
And he succeeded, as said, because his portrayal of Zeb is paradigmatic – loved by everybody, the character and the actor beyond the character brought joy, compassion and the wisdom which comes with experience.