Why Was Will Geer Blacklisted in Hollywood?

In the annals of Hollywood history, certain stories stand out not just for the talent they brought to the screen, but for the tumultuous journeys their protagonists endured. Will Geer, born William Aughe Ghere, was not just an American actor but also a musician, social activist, and a prominent figure in labor organizing. However, the shadows of Hollywood’s blacklist cast a long and challenging path for Geer, leading to questions about why he faced this harsh consequence.

Early Life and Activism

Will Geer’s journey began in Frankfort, Indiana, where he was born to Katherine and Roy Aaron Ghere. His early years were marked by the departure of his father when he was just 11. Influenced by his grandfather, Geer initially pursued botany, obtaining a master’s degree at the University of Chicago. His activism roots, however, began to take shape during the 1930s and 1940s in New York and Southern California.

Geer was blacklisted in the 1950s by Hollywood
Geer was blacklisted in the 1950s by Hollywood

Geer, anglicizing his name, entered the world of acting with a unique blend of social commentary. He played a crucial role in the Federal Theatre Project production of “The Cradle Will Rock” in 1937 and delved into narrating documentaries, including “Men and Dust,” shedding light on the plight of miners.

Activism and Collaboration with Woody Guthrie

Geer’s commitment to activism took a more defined shape when he toured government work camps with folk singers like Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie. His collaboration with Guthrie resulted in the 1956 album “Bound for Glory: Songs and Stories of Woody Guthrie.” This era laid the foundation for Geer’s dedication to progressive causes.

The Hollywood Blacklist

The 1950s saw a dark turn in Geer’s career as he became a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. Refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and disclose names of alleged Communist Party members, Geer faced severe consequences. This principled stance led to a significant reduction in film opportunities for him.

In 1951, Geer, along with his wife Herta Ware, founded the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California.
In 1951, Geer, along with his wife Herta Ware, founded the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California.

Amidst the blacklist, Geer managed to participate in a notable film, “Salt of the Earth” (1954), produced, directed, and written by blacklisted Hollywood personnel. The film, portraying a miners’ strike in New Mexico from a pro-union perspective, faced challenges in production and distribution.

Theatricum Botanicum and Later Years

In the aftermath of the blacklist, Geer’s resilience shone. In 1951, he co-founded the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California, with his wife, actress Herta Ware. This endeavor allowed him to combine his love for acting and botany, cultivating every plant mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Geer’s career took a turn for the mainstream when he assumed the role of Zebulon Walton, the family patriarch, in the TV series “The Waltons.” His outstanding portrayal earned him an Emmy in 1975. The show addressed his absence after his death, marking a poignant moment in television history.

Personal Life and Activism

Geer’s personal life intertwined seamlessly with his activism. His marriage to Herta Ware, an actress and activist, saw them engaged in various political and labor movements. Their commitment to leftist causes and the Communist Party marked them as targets during the Red Scare.

The blacklist didn’t just affect Geer’s career; it impacted his family profoundly. Ellen Geer, his daughter, recalls the hardships they faced, including ostracism and the eventual collapse of her parents’ marriage. The family’s journey to rebuild and reunite took almost two decades.

Will Geer’s legacy endures not just through his acting career but also in the idyllic setting of Theatricum Botanicum. Despite the adversities of blacklisting, his resilience, passion for the arts, and commitment to progressive values left an indelible mark on Hollywood’s history.

In conclusion, Will Geer’s story is one of resilience, principled stand, and an enduring commitment to the arts despite the challenges of Hollywood’s blacklist. His legacy lives on through the Theatricum Botanicum and the impact he left on the entertainment industry.


Q1: Why was Will Geer blacklisted?

A1: Will Geer was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and disclose names of alleged Communist Party members.

Q2: What impact did blacklisting have on Will Geer’s career?

A2: Blacklisting severely limited Geer’s film opportunities, leading him to focus on other ventures like the Theatricum Botanicum. His career eventually saw a resurgence with “The Waltons.”

Q3: How did Will Geer contribute to activism?

A3: Geer actively participated in labor organizing, supported workers’ rights, and was involved in progressive causes. His collaboration with Woody Guthrie and his dedication to leftist ideals marked his activism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.