Catch GRIZZLY ADAMS Sunday Mornings on getTV
What were you doing forty years ago this week? If you were young, you were probably watching the premiere of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, an adventure series about a mountain man who flees to the wilderness after he’s wrongly accused of a crime. Dan Haggerty played the title character, an animal whisperer who lives in a log cabin with his best friend, a grizzly named Ben. Imagine The Odd Couple set in the Civil War era, except the sloppy roommate is a 600-lb bear.
For ‘70s kids taught to “give a hoot, don’t pollute,” Grizzly Adams was an idol. Like him, we dreamed of escaping from chores and homework, moving to the forest, and living where the wild things were. The show quickly became a must-see and, despite a relatively short two-season run, retains a special place in the hearts of many Gen X’ers (and our Boomer siblings and parents). And now, four decades later, Grizzly Adams, Ben, and all their human and critter friends are returning to delight a new generation of viewers. The original series joins getTV’s family-friendly Sunday morning lineup this weekend, kicking off with a marathon of eight classic episodes.
The real, historical figure known as “Grizzly” Adams was a descendant of John and John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth presidents of the United States. Born in Massachusetts in 1812, Adams began his career as an outdoorsman at age 21, hunting and trapping in the wilds of the Northeast. The California Gold Rush lured him west in 1849 and he ended up living off the land in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he befriended members of the Miwok Indian tribe. By 1856 Adams had transitioned from outdoorsman to showman, eventually ending up in New York City partnered with P.T. Barnum. He died in 1860 but his folkloric legacy lived on thanks to Theodore Hittell’s book The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California, published that same year.
More than a century later, Grizzly Adams received what today would be called a “reboot,” courtesy of writer, producer, and faith filmmaker Charles Sellier. First came a 1972 novel in which Sellier reimagined the character as a sort of historical Doctor Dolittle, befriending the same animals the real Adams had hunted and collected for sport and profit. Adams was now a wrongly accused fugitive, forced into the wild to escape a $1,000 bounty for murder! Sellier’s production company Sunn Classic Pictures shot a film adaptation in 1974 with a different actor as Adams, but when Sellier and partner Patrick Frawley found Haggerty – then a 31-year-old stuntman and animal handler – they junked what had been shot and started over. With the hirsute Haggerty in the lead, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams became one of the highest grossing independent films of all time. And, after a TV broadcast in May of 1976 scored big ratings, NBC ordered a weekly series.
The TV show is a mash-up of the Grizzly Adams movie and The Adventures of Frontier Fremont, a 1976 Sunn Classic release in which Haggerty portrayed another mountain man living in harmony with nature, opposite veteran actor Denver Pyle. In the series, Pyle was given the newly created role of Mad Jack, a crotchety old trapper who serves as Adams’ mentor and de facto biographer, narrating each story in flashback. Don Shanks, a Native American actor who originated the role of the injured brave Nakoma in the film – and plays a similar character in Frontier Fremont – also returns for the series. In the second episode, Adams rescues Nakoma, nurses him back to health, and becomes his blood brother, recreating a key sequence from the film. (Almost all of the movie is repurposed or expanded upon for the show, so don’t fret if you haven’t seen it.) Child actor John Bishop also appears in a handful of episodes as Robbie, the son of a homesteader.
While some ‘70s TV drama can feel quaint to today’s eyes, Grizzly Adams has a delightfully timeless quality. Produced by Sunn Classic from the company’s Park City, Utah headquarters, the series was filmed almost entirely on location, and the breathtaking vistas are another key factor in its contemporary watchability. To avoid inclement weather, Haggerty explained in a 2012 interview, production would move from Utah to Payson, Arizona to Ruidosa, New Mexico.
“We had three different locations, but it all looked like the same spot,” said the actor, who died in 2016 at age 73. “It looked like God was very nice to us and it never snowed in our backyard.”
As in most Western-themed series, the action often plays out courtesy of recognizable guest stars (including Ronny Cox, Jack Elam, Patrick Wayne, and F-Troop alums Ken Berry, Forrest Tucker, and Larry Storch). You wouldn’t think so many people could wander into an unmarked cabin in the middle of the wild frontier, but they do. Everyone from lost children, to injured animals, to actual historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt manage to find Adams. The appearance of the twenty-something Roosevelt (Charles Martin Smith) is particularly interesting, since the future president was just two-years-old when the IRL Adams died.
But it all works, thanks primarily to Haggerty, who won a People’s Choice Award for the series in 1978. Jokes have been made over the years about his bushy beard and Farrah Fawcett hairdo, but this is the role he was born to play. Haggerty manages to have lengthy conversations with all manner of anthropomorphized animals without seeming utterly ridiculous, which is a trick not every actor could pull off. His low key naturalism, soothing voice, and beatific countenance are remarkably calming; you can’t help but leave an episode of Grizzly Adams with the feeling that everything is going to be okay. And, as the series progresses, Adams evolves into something of a shaman, a mystical superhero communing with wildlife, guarding the forest, and protecting all living creatures.
“These mountains will feed you if you just give them a chance,” Adams tells Robbie’s trigger-happy father in Unwelcome Neighbor, the first produced episode of the series. “You don’t have to cut nothing down, dig nothing up, or kill anything.”
This was the philosophy of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams: non-violence, sustainability, and respect. Forty years later, it’s a message that’s timelier than ever.
The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams airs Sundays at 9 am ET/6 am PT following Father Murphy. Unwelcome Neighbor airs February 5 at 10 am ET/7 am PT. Start with that one, if you can.