The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams
Dan Haggerty starred in this NBC drama series, a television version of the 1974 film of the same name that also starred Haggerty. A mid-season replacement that premiered in February 1977, the series performed well enough to be renewed for the 1977-1978 season but was cancelled after its second season. Twice ranked ranked by the National Parent Teacher Association as one of the most positive shows on television, the series was followed by a telefilm in February 1982 that wrapped up the story of Grizzly Adams.
In 1974, Sunn Classic Pictures (also known as Schick-Sunn Classic Pictures or Sun Classic Pictures), released a film called The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, based loosely on the life of John “Grizzly” Adams, a 19th-century hunter and animal trainer. Produced by Charles E. Sellier, Jr., the film starred Dan Haggerty in the title role of James Capen “Grizzly” Adams. Accused of a murder he didn’t commit, Adams was forced to escape into the wilderness, leaving his daughter behind.
The film reportedly cost just $140,000 to make and was a huge hit at the box office, making more than $65 million . NBC broadcast the movie on Monday, May 17th, 1976 from 8-10PM and it was again a huge success, averaging a 26.5/43 Nielsen rating. This despite airing opposite the Emmy Awards on beating the Emmy Awards on ABC from 9-10PM. It was the highest-rated installment of The NBC Monday Night Movie since The Godfather had aired over the course of two nights in November 1974 .
Not surprisingly, NBC was impressed and in December 1976 was reported to be interested in a weekly series based on the film . On January 1st, 1977 Broadcasting reported that The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams had been given the 8-9PM time slot on Wednesdays, replacing low-rated sitcoms Sirota’s Court and The Practice, and would premiere on February 9th .
The theme song to the series, titled “Maybe,” was written and sung by Thom Pace.
Set in 1853, the 1974 film began with Adams saying goodbye to his 8-year-old daughter, Peg, and heading out into the forest to avoid capture for a murder he hadn’t committed. He soon came upon a grizzly bear cub trapped on a mountain ledge. Adams rescued the cub, named him Ben, and the two were soon inseparable. Adams set about learning how to survive in the valley he called home. He befriended a wounded Native American named Nakoma (played by Don Shanks), who helped teach Adams about the wilds.
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Some ten years later, an adult Peg searching for her father found Adams and the two were reunited. But Adams couldn’t bring himself to leave, having lived too long in the wilderness. The television series ignored the fact that Adams had a daughter. Both Haggerty and Shanks returned for the series and another character was added, trapper Mad Jack (played by Denver Pyle). John Bishop appeared in a handful of episodes as Robbie Cartman, a young boy who lived with his father near Adams’s cabin. Ben was portrayed by a grizzly bear named Bozo.
Haggerty called the series “a simple show” and described his character as “sort of a St. Francis of Assisi with his bears and wildlife. Though he avoids killing, he teaches hunters the right way to kill for food, and keeps clear of man because of the bounty on his head. Mad Jack is his go-between. Adams can be the hunted, or help the lost in stories” .
Reviewing the series premiere for The Hartford Courant, Owen McNally called The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams “a bright and bubbly pause that refreshes tonight in its debut on NBC.” He referred to Dan Haggerty as “an absolute natural” and felt the series was perfect for children because it “presents a peaceful, pastoral view of the world–more the call of the mild than of the wild. No one gets shot, or even half-shot, maimed or mutilated–not even in the name of the law” .
In a review for The New York Times, John Leonard praised “a straightforward script, crisp direction, splendid location shots of Utah and Arizona and acting that is almost as splendid as the locations.” He did have a few minor issues with the premiere, chiefly the “heavy-breathing music” and close-ups of perfect teeth, and worried that the first 15 minutes might be too scary for young children .
But other critics weren’t so kind. United Press International felt the scenery and animals stole the show, upstaging Haggerty, whose “handsome features are hidden behind more facial shrubbery than the bearded lady, and what you can see of his face looks immobile. He isn’t aided by an untrained voice. Perhaps he’ll grow in the role” .
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The Milwaukee Sentinel‘s Chris Stoehr also criticized Haggerty, suggesting “his delivery of lines wouldn’t get him a part in an Alpo commercial.” Stoehr also argued that the series failed “to capture the feeling of wilderness” because television simply could not “convey the feeling of natural expanses” due to inadequate screen size, color, sound and photography .
Norman Dresser’s negative review of the premiere for the Toledo Blade, published on February 12th, received so many letters from irate viewers that he published a follow-up article on February 22nd. In it, Dresser stood by his initial comments but did step back from calling it the worst show of the season, arguing that other shows were worse and that there were “certainly more harmful series in the sense that some do exploit violence and sex, which ‘Grizzly Adams’ does not” 10].
Dresser also admitted that perhaps his years as a critic had made him “too alert to what the casual viewr may regard as only mildly irritating or boring.” In conclusion, however, he wrote “I still maintain that ‘Grizzly Adams’ is a poor series not worthy of a primtime slot on NBC” .
Each episode of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams featured opening narration from Mad Jack which revealed he was writing down the real story of Adams “just the way it happened in hopes of setting the record straight.” Each episode also saw additional narration from Mad Jack that set up the plot.
In the series premiere, a young girl was separated from her parents as they made their way Westward via wagon. Lost and scared, she was confronted by a lion but saved by grizzly bear Ben, who led her to Adams. With the help of Mad Jack, Adams was able to reunite her with her parents, who had been searching for her in the woods.
As was common practice episodes weren’t aired in the order they were produced. For example the first episode aired was actually the fourth produced. For the most part this wasn’t a problem. There were no continuing storylines. However, it did affect one aspect of the series: the episode that introduced recurring character Robbie Cartman was aired fourth while another episode featuring Robbie aired second.
Many episodes involved Adams, along with Mad Jack and Nakoma, helping strangers who found their way into the woods and into trouble. In one, Adams pulled a man out of a raging river only to discover that he was involved in a bank robbery. In another, Adams and Mad Jack helped a wounded man who refused to let his daughter out of his sight.
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A few episodes featured famous people who encountered Adams. A young Teddy Roosevelt appeared in one episode, in which he attempted to prove he could take care of himself in the wild but instead continually made a mess of things. In another, famous detective Allan Pinkerton vowed to track down Adams but after seeing Adams risk his life to save animals from a volcano, he changed his mind.
Two early episodes, told primarily in flashbacks, revealed how Adams met Nakoma and Mad Jack. Nakoma had been wounded by a mountain lion and Adams helped nurse him back to health, forging a bond between the two. They soon become blood brothers. Adams and Mad Jack had met when Ben was still a cub. Mad Jack was not at all impressed with Adams but after getting into a fight the two eventually grew to be good friends.
Mad Jack was something of a roving trader who occasionally dropped by Grizzly’s cabin, bringing supplies and conversation. He had a burro (a wild horse) known as Number Seven; the two shared a fierce stubborn streak and rarely got along. He loved flapjacks and Grizzly could make a mean flapjack.
Other episodes involved Adams dealing with a beaver dam that threatened to destroy his cabin; the search for a young girl lost in a blizzard; a camel mistaken for a monster; Ben’s capture by a circus; and Nakoma competing with Mad Jack for the affections of a beautiful woman.
A total of 13 episodes were broadcast during the first season, with the season final airing on May 21th. Guest stars included Ronnie Cox, Slim Pickens, Ken Berry and Norman Fell.
The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was scheduled opposite The Bionic Woman on ABC and Good Times/The Jacksons on CBS. However, because it was a mid-season replacement, as the regular season wound down it often competed with specials or repeats on the other networks. The first two episodes of averaged a 31 share of the audience, a figure Broadcasting called decent . The fourth episode averaged a 21.0/32 Nielsen rating and Broadcasting reported that sources indicated the show was “an almost certain bet for renewal next fall” .
On April 11th, Broadcasting included the series in a list of “marginal shows” that NBC would likely renew for the 1977-1978 season, hoping they would do better in the fall and potentially in new time slots . The series was renewed for the 1977-1978 season. It ranked 38th in the Nielsen ratings for the 1976-1977 season, out of 102 prime time shows. The season officially ended on April 17th . By that point, nine episodes of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams had aired.
The second season of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams premiered on Wednesday, September 28th, 1977. Mad Jack’s opening narration was changed slightly for the new season. The main cast remained the same and once again John Bishop would make several appearances as young Robbie Cartman. The season premiere involved Mad Jack shooting down a hot air balloon piloted by a Frenchman working for the Pony Express. A similar episode would air late in the season in which an inventor working on an experimental glider. In both episodes, Jack ended up taking flight.
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A few episodes during the second season saw Ben take center stage. In one, he was accused of stealing fish from the chief of Nakoma’s tribe. Mad Jack tried to defend the grizzly in front of a tribal council while Adams, worried that Ben may be banished forever, set out to uncover the truth. In another episode, the whole gang spent a cramped night in Adams’s cabin riding out a thunderstorm. The next day, while Adams, Mad Jack and Nakoma worked to repair the cabin, Ben took off to enjoy the nice weather. The bear encountered a medicine man and a stranded grizzly cub and terrified a pair of settlers by climbing into their wagon in search of food.
(This episode strained credulity, with Mad Jack somehow narrating Ben’s adventures while he himself was back at the cabin with Adams and Nakoma.)
Like the first season, most episodes involved strangers getting into trouble in the wild. There were episodes featuring orphans; a magician and his elderly bear; a runaway slave; silver miners poisoning the water; a lost deer; a pair of bumbling gold prospectors; and a government agent afraid of animals working for the Department of the Interior.
Other episodes saw Mad Jack losing his burrow in a game of horseshoes; Mad Jack believing he’s found a real life leprechaun who can lead him to gold; a retired soldier who spent his life savings on a farm in the valley that didn’t exist; a dangerous drought in the valley; Nakoma charged with killing a cougar that Adams raised because it had attacked Nakoma’s village; a woman trying to track down the bear that killed her father; and Adams, stricken with amnesia and chased by a bounty hunter.
There was again an episode in which a famous historical figure encountered Adams. Ulysses S. Grant, surveying animals in the valley for the Army and working on a book that would teach soldiers how to hunt animals for food. Adams and Mad Jack, distraught at the very idea, showed Grant how to live off the land without harming animals.
A special ninety-minute Easter episode was aired on March 22nd, 1978 from 8-9:30PM. A total of 24 episodes were broadcast during the second season, the last of which aired on May 12th, 1978. Guest stars during the second season included Tiffany Bolling, Forrest Tucker, Russ Tamblyn, Keenan Wynn, Larry Storch and Jack Elam.
During its second season, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was again aired on Wednesdays from 8-9PM. It initially competed Eight is Enough on ABC and Good Times/Busting Loose on CBS. But CBS soon cancelled Busting Loose and replaced it in December with Szysznk, which itself was taken off the air in January 1978. CBS then filled the 8-9PM time slot with specials.
The premiere episode ranked 30th for the week with Eight is Enough doing slightly better, tying at 25 with Barney Miller . During his 34th birthday party in November 1977, Dan Haggerty was badly burned when a flaming drink was accidentally splashed across his face, setting his beard on fire. Although a nearby waiter attempted to put on the flames, Haggerty nevertheless required plastic surgery. Due to his injuries, production on the series was halted for a month .
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In February 1978, the National Parent Teacher Association for the very first time ranked network television programs as either “positive contributions to the quality of life in America” or violent and/or vulgar.” The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was one of four NBC shows to be rated excellent. Other excellent programs in the top ten included The Waltons on CBS and Eight is Enough on ABC. Yet NBC was also found to have the most programs with violent content and, in response, NBC released a statement that included the following: “The study appears to be based not on objective or scientific criteria but rather on subjective value judgments, not necessarily reflecting those of the country as a whole” .
The 1977-1978 season officially ended on April 9th and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams ranked 48th out of 104 shows with an 18.1 Nielsen rating. ABC’s Eight is Enough did considerably better, ranking 13th with a 22.6 rating . At that point, NBC had not decided whether to renew the series for the 1978-1979 season. A list circulated by the Chicago Tribune in early April considered it doubtful for renewal .
In mid-May, NBC announced it was cancelling canceled roughly one-third of its prime-time schedule, including The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, in an attempt to reinvigorate its line-up and move out of third place . Repeats were aired through July 26th.
In August 1978, the National Parent Teacher Association released an updated network television program guide. This time The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was ranked among the top ten shows “on the basis of positive contribution to quality of life, lack of offensive content, and high artistic and technical quality. It was also ranked one of the least offensive shows and one of the least violent shows on television .
NBC aired a special 90-minute Christmas episode of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on Tuesday, December 19th, 1978. Titled “Once Upon A Starry Night,” the special aired from 8:30-10PM. A few years later, the network broadcast a made-for-TV movie called The Capture of Grizzly Adams, in which Adams was finally captured but was able to clear his name and reunite with his daughter. It aired on Sunday, February 21st, 1982 from 9-11PM. Although Dan Haggerty returned as Grizzly Adams, the telefilm did not feature Denver Pyle as Mad Jack or Don Shanks as Nakoma.
The series was syndicated to local stations both under its full title and simply as Grizzly Adams. Forum Home Video released two episodes on VHS in 1989. The Capture of Grizzly Adams was also released on VHS. In 1990, a direct-to-video movie called The Legend of Grizzly Adams (also known as Grizzly Adams: The Legend Continues) was released, but did not star Dan Haggerty as Adams. Instead, Gene Edwards took on the title role.
The series was repeated on cable channel FX in the mid-1990s. In November 2012, Timeless Media Group released the complete first season on DVD. The complete second season followed in February 2013. The Capture of Grizzly Adams was released on DVD in November 2013.
Denver Pyle passed away on December 25th, 1997 at the age of 77. Dan Haggerty passed away on January 15th, 2016 at the age of 74.
2 Sun Classic Pictures took out a full page advertisement in the June 6th, 1976 issue of Broadcasting, heralding the performance of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams in the Nielsen ratings. The advertisement was printed on the inner front cover.
3 Deeb, Gary. “NBC’s ‘Van Dyke & Co,’ loses the numbers game, and the ax falls.” Chicago Tribune. 16 Dec. 1976: A12.
4 “NBC works on Wednesday.” Broadcasting. 24 Jan. 1977: 49.
5 Witbeck, Charles. “Dan Haggerty Bears Up in New NBC Series Wednesday Nights.” Leader-Herald [Gloversville-Johnstown, NY]. Key Features Syndicate. 17 Feb. 1977: 5.
6 McNally, Owen. “TV: Grizzly Adams Bears Viewing.” Hartford Courant. 9 Feb. 1977: 65.
7 Leonard, John. “TV: Tear Jerked by ‘Grizzly’.” New York Times. 9 Feb. 1977: 52.
8 “Dan Haggerty stars in outdoor series.” Boca Raton News. United Press International. 8 Feb. 1977: 9.
9 Stoehr, Chris. “TV Today: ‘Grizzly Adams’ Not Fair to the Best Actor — The Bear.” Milwaukee Sentinel. 9 Feb. 1977, Good Morning sec.: 2.
10 Dresser, Norman. “Our Critic Says It Once More: ‘Grizzly Adams’ Not So Good.” Toledo Blade. 22 Feb. 1977, Peach Section: 4.
12 “ABC, still ahead, sweeps sweeps.” Broadcasting. 28 Feb. 1977: 25.
13 “ABC, by itself in season ratings, tries new shows.” Broadcasting. 14 Mar. 1977: 58.
14 “Closed Circuit.” Broadcasting. 11 Apr. 1977: 7.
15 “ABC-TV wins in prime time and in a big way.” Broadcasting. 25 Apr. 1977: 38.
16 Deeb, Gary. “Tempo TV.” Chicago Tribune. 6 Oct. 1977: A14.
17 “Notes on People.” New York Times. 23 Nov. 1977: 41.
18 Sheppard, Jr., Nathaniel. “10 Television Shows Get P.T.A. Rating ‘Excellent;’ CBS Deemed Best Overall.” New York Times. 16 Feb. 1978: B20.
19 “A season’s worth of program standings.” Broadcasting. 1 May 1978: 36.
20 “‘Kojak’ Included on TV’s 1978 Casualty List.” Hartford Courant. Chicago Tribune Syndicate [?]. 9 Apr. 1978: 28V.
21 Shepard, Richard F. “NBC-TV Dropping Nearly a Third of Shows in Fall.” New York Times 16 May 1978: 71.
22 O’Connor, Meg. “PTA rates 10 best, worst TV programs.” Chicago Tribune. 11 Aug. 1978: 5.
Originally Published May 8th, 2004
Last Updated January 15th, 2016