getTV talks GRIZZLY ADAMS — An Interview with Jennifer Garlen
If you were a kid in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you crossed paths with Grizzly Adams. A young-adult novel came first in 1972, followed by a movie and TV adaptation in 1974 and 1977 respectively, both starring Dan Haggerty as the bushy-bearded mountain man. All were the work of faith-based mogul Charles E. Sellier Jr., who spun a simple story into a pop culture phenomenon that included action figures, coloring books, board games, View-Masters and even stuffed animals!
To learn more about the actual historical figure and the show he inspired — seen Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. ET on getTV — we recently spoke with Jennifer Garlen, author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching.
“Grizzly Adams really resonated with me as a little kid,” she told us. “And going back to it as an adult, I’m struck by how well it’s held up.”
Garlen chatted with us from her home in Alabama. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
getTV: Was The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams based on a real person?
JENNIFER GARLEN: Yes, sort of. The novel from the early 1970s was based on a real mid-19th century frontiersman. The TV show has a different sense of time. Young Teddy Roosevelt shows up in an episode, but the real Grizzly Adams was already dead by then.
Did he really live out in the woods?
Briefly, as part of a Western push during the Gold Rush, but he wasn’t on the run for a murder he didn’t commit! The real Grizzly Adams was more of a hunter and trapper, and then later, a P.T. Barnum-style showman.
That’s about as different from the TV version as you can get!
I think the TV character reflects the 1970s. It's very much about the environment, living off the land, being one with nature, and all those ‘70s values. If hippies made Westerns, that’s Grizzly Adams.
So, the ‘70s version of Adams is what we today might call a “reboot” of the real guy — with a “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” sensibility.
Yes, and they actually rebooted it several times in just a few years. The TV show reboots the same plot that's in the book and the movie. The first several episodes of the show use flashbacks to take you back to the original meeting of Grizzly Adams and Nakoma (Don Shanks) and Mad Jack (Denver Pyle), and the intro sequence for every episode of the show basically tells you all you need to know.
I think it’s the longest opening sequence in TV history!
It’s a very leisurely paced program by today’s standards! It's really a sixty-minute show. Every episode feels like a mini movie.
Nowadays there are entire channels just for kids. How did the children’s TV landscape differ back in the ‘70s?
The few kids’ shows back then were often very testosterone-driven and boy-centric. Grizzly Adams was just divinely peaceful. For me, it sits squarely in between Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and Little House on the Prairie. Wild Kingdom is where we learned to love animals. Little House is where we learned to be better people. Grizzly Adams incorporates a lot of what I like about both.
What do you think the appeal was for ‘70s kids?
I think it's the purity of the show. It's not complex. It doesn't have a complicated mythos or difficult plots. It doesn't have a lot of characters to have to keep straight and remember what happened to whom last time.
And it was made for the whole family to watch together, not just kids.
I think we don't have enough of that anymore. Television has become so compartmentalized. There's kids’ TV and adult TV, and the kids’ TV is loud and superficial, and the adult TV is so dark it gives me nightmares and I don't want to watch it. There's not a lot of that happy, common ground that the whole family could enjoy.
Kids were certainly more eclectic in our viewing back in the ‘70s!
We controlled the TV on Saturday mornings. The rest of the time, we weren't making those decisions. We watched what our parents were watching, or we didn’t watch.
One thing 1970s TV did very well was entice us to the toy aisle. Do you remember having any Grizzly Adams toys?
I had a stuffed Number 7, Mad Jack’s donkey! It was a Christmas gift from Santa Claus. On the show, Number 7 is a he, but my Number 7 is a she because I was five. I had a death grip on that toy and slept with it every night. It instantly became my beloved companion, went with me to college, and has been with me ever since!
You’ve written about some of the greatest Westerns of all time. Is Grizzly Adams a Western?
I think it is. It's got a lot in common with some of the Westerns that started coming out in the late '70s: the kinder, gentler Western, that idea of the West as a place of soul searching as opposed to a place of domination. It's a different kind of Western, but it has all the same foundational pieces of the genre.
The “wanted man,” for one.
You have: the wanted man in Adams; Mad Jack, the cantankerous old coot with the heart of gold; and Native Americans like Nakoma and others. And a lot of the one-shot characters are straight out of Western central casting. So, it has all the conventions of the Western, but it puts them to a different use than the traditional John Wayne Western, for example.
You’ve been revisiting the show recently. Any other impressions?
At age 5, I just liked the show and the animals. I thought Grizzly Adams was cute and seemed so nice, and he apparently started my life-long interest in blond men. But, going back to it as an adult, I'm struck by how gentle it is.
Is that gentle spirit part of why it has endured all these years?
I think so. The show encourages people to be kind, and to be better people, and to respect nature and live as one with the earth. I think those are lovely messages. I was really surprised watching it again, just how enjoyable it still was. My 19-year-old, who had never seen it, sat down and watched several episodes with me. She kept saying, "This show is just so pure!”
Were you and your daughter struck by the amazing number of guest stars who stumble upon Grizzly Adams in the woods?
I sure was. It’s like Grand Central Station out there!
The trend today is bringing back old shows. Would you like to see a new Grizzly Adams?
I think a reboot would want to make it more cynical, more violent, more conflict-oriented, and I don't want that. We have enough violent, conflict-oriented TV already. What’s special about Grizzly Adams is that gentleness and how wholesome it is. I think we could use more kindness, so I would prefer Grizzly Adams to be what it has always been.