Saturday, January 16, 2016

Memories of 'Grizzly Adams'

I've just learned that actor Dan Haggerty has died at the age of 74.

Haggerty was best known for starring in the eponymous role in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. This brief-lived film (1974) and television series (1977-8) was loosely (very loosely) based on the life of James Adams, a nineteenth-century California mountain man.

The real Adams had a way with wild animals, most notably grizzly bears. So did the fictional Adams portrayed by Dan Haggerty. Adams' pet grizzly bear, "Ben" was as much a character in the television show as any of the human supporting cast, which included Denver Pyle (whom 1970s television audiences also knew as "Uncle Jesse" on The Dukes of Hazzard.)

Grizzly Adams was cutting-edge 1970s television (an oxymoronic phrase, perhaps?) Except...no, it wasn't. Grizzly Adams was pure cornpone, filled with hackneyed dialogue, predictable plots, and cloying sentimentality.

It was also greatly appealing to, and much loved by, my nine-year-old self.

I used to watch Grizzly Adams with my grandfather, a weekend outdoorsman who fancied himself an unrealized mountain man. My grandfather was a World War II veteran who got married in 1945 and went immediately to work at a Ford Motor Company transmission plant. His outdoor activities were hobbies, and he often included me in his low-key adventures. Tuning in to Grizzly Adams was something we did together, like fishing and trap shooting.

Sometimes while the ending credits of Grizzly Adams were playing, my grandfather and I would talk about hauling stakes for the mountains for a year or two, just like Grizzly Adams. Even at the age of nine I knew this to be an impossible pipe dream. I was also beginning to grasp the value of pipe dreams for men who lead no-nonsense, duty-bound lives, like my grandfather did.

Audiences of today would have no stomach for Grizzly Adams, immersed as we are in pervasive cynicism and unrelenting irony. Grizzly Adams was perhaps a bit behind its times even in the 1970s. The show only lasted two seasons. And if you've never heard of the 1974 movie, well, there might be a reason for that.

My grandfather and I never made it to the mountains, as I knew we would not. I also know that Grizzly Adams, despite my criticism of current television offerings, was not great TV. But the show was good enough for me at age 9, and it made for some great memories with my grandfather.

I have no desire to watch old episodes of Grizzly Adams on YouTube or Netflix. My grandfather is nearly twenty years gone; and anyway, I suspect the show wouldn't age well.

Nevertheless, I'm grateful for the memories: Dan Haggerty helped me bond with my grandfather in the comparatively brief time that we had together. Whether or not Grizzly Adams was flawed television, it got the job done for the times--my times, at least.

And it wouldn't have been the same show without the man who carried out the lead role so memorably. Dan Haggerty, RIP.