Dan Haggerty, the burly, bearded actor who starred in the 1974 film The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and went on to reprise the role in the subsequent TV series, has died at age 74 after a battle with cancer.
Born in Pound, Wisconsin on November 19, 1941, Haggerty moved to California after graduating from high school with an eye toward pursuing an acting career. Work was slow for Haggerty at first, and the majority of his early acting jobs were uncredited. But he did earn brief appearances in the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello classic Muscle Beach Party, Elvis Presley’s Girl Happy, and Easy Rider. The latter film helped set the stage for the next several years of Haggerty’s career, providing him not only with an acting gig, but also the chance to work behind the scenes on the motorcycles.
“Dennis (Hopper) and Peter and I were pretty good friends, and they said, ‘Look, why don’t you come work on the bikes and do some things like that?,’” Haggerty said in a 2008 interview at the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio. Decades later, Haggerty’s work on Easy Rider and his friendship with Tex Hall, one of the film’s stunt riders, led him to become one of the players in a legal battle surrounding the authenticity of a Captain America chopper, the motorcycle ridden by Peter Fonda in the film, put up for bid by the Profiles in History Auction House.
After Easy Rider, Haggerty continued to work regularly in motorcycle films throughout the early ’70s, including Angels Die Hard, Chrome And Hot Leather, Bury Me An Angel, Pink Angels, and Superchick. Plus—per IMDb—he holds the dubious distinction of being the only actor to have appeared in both Easy Rider and 1973’s Sleazy Rider. More notable for Haggerty was 1971’s The Tender Warrior, directed by Stewart Raffill (Mac And Me, Tammy And The T-Rex), which provided Haggerty with his first shot as a leading man and led to a future collaboration with Raffill on 1974’s When the North Wind Blows, a.k.a. Snow Tigers, distributed by Sunn Classic Pictures.
Per Haggerty in a 2014 interview, Sunn Classic had already worked on a Grizzly Adams film with another actor, but when Patrick Frawley, one of the studio’s founding executives, saw dailies from Snow Tigers and spotted Haggerty, he exclaimed, “Now that guy should be Grizzly Adams, not that other we guy we had!” After asking his secretary if she knew the name of the actor, Frawley was surprised to learn that not only did she know his name, she was his wife. In short order, Haggerty was contacted in Canada, where he was still filming Snow Tigers, and asked to fly back to meet with Frawley.
“He said, ‘Look, I made a movie called Grizzly Adams, but I’m not crazy about it,’” said Haggerty. “‘How would you like to be Grizzly Adams as a young man? And the footage we have already will fade into the old character.’ I said, ‘No, I’d rather just do the whole thing myself, if that’s okay.’ He said, ‘Well, we only have $185,000 left in the budget.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do.’”:
They did quite well: The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams, the story of a frontier woodsman who forges a new life for himself in the wilderness after being accused of a murder he didn’t commit, went on to gross more than $45 million domestically and $65 worldwide before ending up as the 7th highest grossing film of 1974.
In the wake of the film’s success, Haggerty soon found work starring in a new Sunn Classic endeavor, The Adventures of Frontier Fremont, which found Haggerty once again playing a mountain man who was at one with nature and had a friend played by Denver Pyle. The unabashed attempt to rip off its own success failed, but Sunn Classic rebounded quickly by teaming with NBC to adapt The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams into a TV series, which ran for two seasons.
As a primetime star, Haggerty’s profile was higher than ever. His level of fame was confirmed when he was selected as the subject of a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, but his roast proved to be particularly notable: According to associate producer Lee Hale, Ruth Buzzi’s contributions to the festivities resulted in the biggest laugh in the history of the roasts:
Unfortunately, Haggerty’s star began to decline after Grizzly Adams wrapped. Although he found work both in front of and behind the camera for David Carradine’s 1981 film Americana, re-teamed with Dennis Hopper that same year for King Of The Mountain, and reprised his most famous role for the 1982 TV movie The Capture Of Grizzly Adams, Haggerty was arrested for cocaine possession in 1984 and served 90 days in jail.
With no further TV opportunities immediately forthcoming in the wake of his release, Haggerty turned to the world of independent films, appearing in a string of low-budget, straight-to-video releases, including 1987’s Terror Night and the 1989 Christmas horror classic (but not in a good way), Elves:
Haggerty suffered an additional setback in 1991 when a motorcycle crash left him in a coma. It would take him four years and 18 operations to make a full recovery. But by 1997 he was back in theaters, starring in Grizzly Mountain. Although the film had no connection to his previous series, his bearded visage combined with the word “Grizzly” made it successful enough to warrant a sequel, 2000’s Escape To Grizzly Mountain.
Haggerty continued to work for the duration of his life, appearing in Rob Schneider’s 2007 film Big Stan and 2013’s Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan, co-starring Joe Estevez. He had two films in post-production at the time of his death, 40 Nights and The Untold Story.
Haggerty is survived by his children Megan, Dylan, Cody, Tracey, and Don.