Ellen Corby and Will Geer captivated viewers of the classic show “The Waltons” with their veteran acting skills as grandma and grandpa. The series never re-casted the duo, even when they experienced hard times.
Actor Will Geer and actress Ellen Corby have co-starred as an inseparable on-screen pair on the American beloved drama series, “The Waltons.” The show never even considered recasting the elderly couple when each had health issues.
However, they were gay in real life and were involved in homosexual relationships. The pair put up a façade with their marriages, and people believed they intended to safeguard their careers. Here are the details about Geer and Corby’s relationship.
CORBY’S MARRIAGE & LONG-TIME RELATIONSHIP WITH A WOMAN
Corby was married to a man named Frank Corby from 1934 to 1944. She was born in June 1911 in Racine, Wisconsin but grew up in Philadelphia.
Her mother died on September 9, 1963, at age 76. The loss of Corby’s mom left a significant void. She once expressed this about her parent’s passing:
“A great deal of me disappeared with her. She was a large part of my life, much more than my husband ever was.”
Ellen Corby starring as Mary Ellen Fenway in a CBS television film suspense series “The Whistler,” during an episode aired on February 3 in 1955. | Source: Getty Images
Nancy, a former WHPL librarian, revealed that loyal viewers of “The Waltons” would have been shocked had Corby and her co-star Geer’s sexuality been made known:
“A loyal viewership of that heart-warming TV series ‘The Waltons’ would have had a collective seizure had it been widely known that Grandpa and Grandma Walton were queer in real-life.”
While Geer had a male lover, “Corby had a relationship of several decades with her female companion. The women donated their large play collection to the West Hollywood library,” said Nancy.
Screenwriter Ellen Corby pictured on September 16, 1978. | Source: Getty Images
Corby last appeared as Grandma Walton in the 1997 TV movie, “A Walton Easter.” By the late 1990s, the screenwriter was a partial invalid and spent much of her time in the Los Angeles home she had shared since 1976 with a dear friend of 45 years, Stella Luchetta.
The pair occasionally watched “Waltons” reruns. Corby, 87, spent her last days in a nursing home and sadly died on April 14, 1999. After she passed away, they announced that she was survived by her “friend” Luchetta.
Corby’s career spanned nearly 60 years, and her memorable role as Grandma Walton earned her three Emmy Awards. To her demise, having had a stroke in the late 1970s cut her participation on the TV show short, which ran from 1972 to 1981.
Ellen Corby as Esther Walton on “The Waltons” on June 16, 1978, in Los Angeles. | Source: Getty Images
CORBY’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HER CO-STARS & ROLE OF GRANDMA
The Wisconsin native became a surrogate grandmother to seven child actors on “The Waltons.” In an interview with The New York Times in 1973, Corby said:
“These children on the show are like my own grandkids, and I am the grandma around here.”
From left to right: (back row) Mary McDonough (as Erin Walton), Jon Walmsley (as Jason Walton), Judy Norton (as Mary Ellen Walton), Eric Scott (as Ben Walton) middle row: Will Greer (as Zeb Grandpa Walton), Richard Thomas (as John Boy Walton), Michael Learned (as Olivia Walton), Ralph Waite (as John Walton) bottom row: David Harper (as Jim-Bob Walton), Ellen Corby (as Ester Grandma Walton), Kami Cotler (as Elizabeth Walton) in “The Waltons” on January 1, 1977. | Source: Getty Images
In real-life, Corby never had grandchildren because she never had children of her own. However, playing a grandmother allowed her to fulfill that role:
“This show is what I’ve ALWAYS wanted.”
Ellen Corby as Esther Walton and Jon Walmsley as Jason Walton in “The Waltons,” on January 1, 1977, in Los Angeles. | Source: Getty Images
She feared that she might not get the role. Along the way, her health gave her a significant setback, and it created more worry for Corby, who believed it would be the end of her stint:
“I got sick and wound up in the hospital in surgery. I was afraid the producers wouldn’t want me back. After all, I had caused them a great inconvenience, delayed production, and didn’t seem very healthy.”
Thankfully, that was not the case for the Golden Globe award winner and Academy Award nominee. The cast of the series was said to be close-knit.
Actors Jon Walmsley, Ellen Corby and Eric Scott attending “The Waltons” Wrap Party at the Century Plaza Hotel on March 23, 1980 in Century City, California. | Source: Getty Images
WILL GEER’S GAY LIFE, ACTIVISM, AND MARRIAGE
Meanwhile, she lived a similar life to her long-time co-star Geer, “Will Geer, who got blacklisted during the anti-communist witch hunts, had a male lover.” His partner was Harry Hay, a gay rights activist, but their relationship later ended.
Kenneth James Stump, an associate producer of “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times,” revealed Geer left Hay because he wanted children with a straight partner.
Will Geer as Zeb Walton in the TV series “The Waltons” during an episode titled “Spring Fever,” aired on November 15, 1977. | Source: Getty Images
As was the case because he later wed actress and activist Herta Ware, with whom he shared three children with, Ellen, Kate, and Thad. Geer opted to marry in 1938 after being both a Party activist and actively gay for at least four years.
It remains unclear whether his marriage to Ware signaled an end to his same-sex sexual activity or if the musician married because he believed the Communist Party strictly prohibited homosexuals from joining.
What is a fact is that Geer was honest about his sexuality with his wife, whom he eventually divorced in 1954 after sixteen years of marriage. Sadly, he tragically died on April 22, 1974.
At his funeral, Hay, who acted defeated after losing him to Ware years before, exclaimed to her, “I had him first.” To which she responded: “I had him longest.”
Actress and activist Herta Ware attending the14th Annual Cable ACE Awards at the Pantages Theater on January 17, 1993, in Hollywood, California. | Source: Getty Images
Geer and Hay started dating during the early 1930s when they worked together. They attended the Communist Party and even became members. Hay was the founder of gay liberation and created the first modern gay-rights organization in 1950. At first, no one wanted to join him in forming a political organization for homosexuals.
He spent two years searching among the gay men he knew in Los Angeles. Although some expressed interest in the group, they were too fearful of joining an organization with only one member. That did not deter Hay from forming an underground Mattachine Society, which ended up having 5000 members on board.
Musician and social activist Will Geer pictured circa 1970. / Source: Getty Images
GEER WAS LIKE A REAL GRANDPA ON ‘THE WALTONS’ SET
Moreover, Hay’s ex-boyfriend was much like a real grandfather on “The Waltons” set. His colleague, writer Earl Hamner spoke highly of him:
“He permeated the set with his personality. With his love. With things that he did. He planted a rose garden. He planted a vegetable garden. How many people do that on a movie set?”
Will Geer as Zeb Walton and fellow co-star child actors David Harper as Jim-Bob Walton and Kami Cotler as Elizabeth Walton on an episode of “The Waltons” titled “The Revelation,” aired on January 13, 1978. | Source: Getty Images
Meanwhile, Geer’s co-star Michael Learned likened the Indiana native to Johnny Appleseed, saying, “Wherever he went, he planted a garden.”
Another co-star Richard Thomas echoed a feeling of much admiration for Geer’s “larger-than-life personality” in his interview. Additionally, Hamner said Geer was “a big, mischievous, fun-loving guy” who “didn’t portray Grandpa. He was Grandpa.”
The series creator recalled people from his Virginia hometown would come to set to take a tour and see behind the scenes. Geer was the one who would always make them feel welcomed.
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