"I went out in grand fashion," Wilson said, holding a cigar outside the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia Tuesday, where he hosted a "Walking Dead" screening and an "In Cold Blood" screening for students over two days.
But he wasn't surprised by Hershel's death. He suspected his character wasn't long for the zombie apocalypse in episode 3 of this season when Herschel proclaimed:
You walk outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. Nowadays you breath and you risk your life. You don't have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you're risking it for.
Credit: Rodney Ho
Credit: Rodney Ho
"Hershel was becoming more proactive, trying to save lives," Wilson said. "It was really a formality when they told me."
But Gimple also told him not to cut his ponytail or shave his beard, two signature accoutrements he added for season three to show how life on the road had made him less attentive to his hair. He instantly knew he'd be back in some flashback episode. So for several weeks, he kept his same look, then was invited back for scenes which aired this past Sunday for the season finale.
Hershel, going back to season two, became a father figure to Rick. He was the conscience for the group, the voice of reason in the face of gruesome death and an uncertain future for even those who were still alive.
Even after his death, during the second half of "The Walking Dead" this year, the ghost of Hershel lived on.
"He's been the source of a lot of spin-off stories," Wilson noted, including his watch he gave to Glenn that played into the final scenes of season four at Terminus which aired this past Sunday to big ratings. "He represented the humanity in the group. He took over the function Dale had early on. When Dale was taken off the show, it opened the door of Hershel."
He hopes the other characters, including Glenn and Maggie, will act with Hershel in mind. One of his favorite moments was when Rick gave his speech to the Governor about forgiveness and trust and living together. Hershel beamed with pride just moments before he lost his head.
Hershel did not approve of Carol's decision to kill two characters who had the flu as an ultimately fruitless pre-emptive strike. Wilson would have doubted he would have said yes to Carol's choice to kill Lizzie either. But he as Wilson defended her choices. "She was doing things she felt were in the best interest of the group. It wasn't a selfish thing. She was putting a huge burden on herself. It's very complicated emotionally."
At age 72, Wilson is grateful for a half-century career that included turns on films ranging from "In the Heat of the Night" and "In Cold Blood" to "The Great Gatsby' and "Dead Man Walking." Up until "The Walking Dead," he was one of those actors people may recognize but not know by name.
Now Wilson - a Georgia native who left the state for the bright lights of Hollywood in 1961 - is recognized everywhere. On UGA campus, he is stopped numerous times for photos, which he gladly accepts. He said "The Walking Dead" was the first time he got to explore a character over multiple seasons and make that deep connection with viewers. "It really kept me on my toes," he said. "It was exciting to be a part of it."
And thanks to conventions such as Walker Stalker, which debuted in Atlanta in November, he'll be seeing his former colleagues from "The Walking Dead" for years to come.
He also enjoyed shooting in Atlanta. In effect, he is returning to his roots. "You step off the airplane and you can smell the earth, the soil," he said. "It resonates through your whole body."
From here on in, Wilson said he'll watch "The Walking Dead" like a fan. And he may even open up the graphic novels creator Robert Kirkman writes that are used as inspiration (but not slavish imitation) for the show. Up to this point, he chose not to read them on purpose so as not to let it influence his choices as Hershel.
Even before he was booked on the show in 2011, he was a fan of the TV show thanks to his mother, who is about to turn 100. She lives in Thomasville in South Georgia. He warned her ahead of time not to watch episode eight when his head gets cut off. But she did anyway. He said when folks ask her about it, she says, "I've seen him die lots of times."
Indeed, he's had plenty of film characters die on screen. He was hanged in "Castle Keep" and shot in different war films.
So far, he hasn't booked any new regular work since he left "The Walking Dead." He did play a doctor character on an Amazon pilot "Bosch' in which he kept his beard and ponytail. (You can watch it here if you're an Amazon Prime member.) Amazon picked up the show so he is keeping his look to shoot at least a couple more episodes.