Jonathan Frakes might be well-known for portraying Commander William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but one of his earlier roles took him back to the Great Depression.
In 1979, in the earlier part of Jonathan Frakes‘ career, he had a two-episode run on the popular family drama, The Waltons, which was set during the Great Depression and World War II (1933-1946). His first appearance on the series was in the show’s seventh season which had changed dramatically for viewers.
At the end of the sixth season of The Waltons, Will Geer, who portrayed the grandfather for six seasons, passed away, and viewers went into mourning for the loving grandpa who handed out old-fashioned wisdom as often as his homespun hugs. It was a huge loss for The Waltons, and for almost the entirety of the next season, the character’s spot at the dinner table remained empty, a quiet homage to both the character and the actor.
Then Frakes was cast in a role opposite Mary Beth McDonough (Erin Walton) on the series. He played Lt. Ashley Longworth, Jr., a Naval officer who fell in love with Erin. He was invited to dinner at the Waltons, and he didn’t have just any spot at the table. He took Will Geer’s old seat, becoming the first actor who sat in the chair since Geer’s death, according to Heroes and Icons.
Frakes recalled the moment in an interview with AV Club when discussing his career.
"One of the great Waltons moments was how, after the great Will Geer died, they kept his chair empty at the dinner table on Walton’s Mountain. The first character asked to sit in his chair was Ashley Longworth."
The chair had sat empty for the first nineteen episodes of the sixth season. None of the original cast members sat in it before Frakes’ character. Though this might not seem like a big deal, it must have been a huge honor for a young actor as the Emmy Award-winning Will Geer was the backbone of The Waltons, and his death left an indelible mark on the series and the actors who worked with him. At the time, Geer had had a career Frakes didn’t know he’d see. One has to imagine how it felt to be in the chair that once belonged to an actor who was the stalwart of a successful series.