Grizzly Adams

Grizzly B’ars Do the Durnedest Things

This post debuts today for obvious reasons: the passing yesterday of Dan Haggerty, best known for his screen role as Grizzly Adams.

First thing you should know off the bat: Grizzly Adams was a REAL GUY. I am also blogging about the real Adams, by virtue of his connection to circuses, his connection to western culture, and above all because (as I learned this morning) I AM RELATED TO HIM. (Hoo hoo!) Originally from Massachusetts, Adams became a California mountain man, where he — yes — caught and trained bears for circuses, exhibitions and zoos. Learn about him here. 

In 1972, author Charles E. Sellier Jr. wrote a novel (very) loosely based on Adams’ life, called The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Two years later, it was turned into a feature film, starring Haggerty. A little context: environmentalism was VERY in during these years, not just as a political thing, but as a cultural one, and there was a substantial craze for it in pop culture, typified by the music of John Denver and earlier films like Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972), which Grizzly Adams greatly resembles, as well as later ones, such as The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975).

Let it be said right here and now that I was VERY much into this trend. Fueled largely by my father’s origins in rural Tennessee, I was very much into pioneer culture, which streamlined very nicely with environmentalism. (Jimmy Carter understood this very well and for a brief while during his honeymoon period, managed to symbolize this connection for Americans, being a Georgia farmer and all. But the energy crisis turned out to be a grizzly bear that Carter held by the ears. The people, unable to see beyond cars the size of PT boats and gas artificially priced cheap enough to fuel them, turned on him savagely, and decided to join Ronald Reagan for a big drunken, credit-card funded party that has lasted now for several decades. But really the fact that happened was just a matter of personality and leadership. Carter is and was a softy. If we ever get an environmentalist with the personality of Andrew Jackson — and not before then — there’ll be some action.But I’m here to tell you: wed the cause of environmentalism to the symbolism of the American pioneer, and then you’ve got something politically. Anything else sounds like a lot of college professors telling people what to do). At any rate, when I was a kid during the energy crisis for awhile our family had a pot belly stove and I chopped wood for it. And LIKED it. True story.

But I digress. Point is, I went to see movies like Grizzly Adams and The Wilderness Family and it fueled my imagination. The movie was such a big hit that it became a television series three years later, running one season (1977-1978). By that time, of course, I was 12 and 13, and well, Grizzly Adams, being a “family” show, it seemed like it was for babies. By then I was watching Saturday Night Live and cultivating my sneer. Haggerty looked like a lot of other large bearded men in circulation at the time: Kenny Rogers, Merlin Olsen, Victor French (the latter two from Little House on the Prairie). He was no thespian, to put it mildly. He looked the part and knew how to handle critters, and those were the job requirements. When I look at his dossier now though I have a lot more respect for the man: he was not just an actor and professional animal trainer, but also a stunt man, and a set builder. When you’ve been around show biz awhile, especially independent show biz, you grow to realize just how valuable a person who can wear all those hats is. (Now that I work with actors who are also things like costumers, make-up effects people, and the like. One person like that can be worth several actors who spend all their free time staring at the looking glass).

So, today let’s raise a glass of cool, clean water (unless you’re in Flint, Michigan) in honor of Dan Haggerty, who not only pulled his own weight, but who taught people to love and take care of the natural environment. I can’t think of a better legacy.

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