Sunday 8 December 2019

Obituary: Dan Haggerty

Actor who starred alongside Ben the bear in much-loved 'Grizzly Adams'

Rapport: Dan Haggerty with bear Ben as Grizzly Adams
Rapport: Dan Haggerty with bear Ben as Grizzly Adams

Dan Haggerty, who has died aged 73, was the star of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, the family-friendly tale of a 19th-century California mountain man and his pet bear which became a hit film and television series in the 1970s.

Though derived from a novel by Charles E Seller, Grizzly Adams was loosely based on the experiences of James Capen Adams. In the 1850s, he had roamed the western United States with a menagerie which included bears he had raised.

For the screen, Adams was transformed into a Robin Hood figure who took to the hills after being unjustly accused of murder. The chief appeal of his adventures, however, was the evident amiability of Haggerty. With his rugged physique and flaming beard, he looked the part, and viewers also warmed to his rapport with his co-star Ben, a 607lb grizzly rescued from a circus.

Indeed, Haggerty had initially worked in film as an animal handler. He was training Siberian tigers in Canada on the set of When the North Wind Blows (1974) when producer Patrick Frawley asked him to stand in for an actor while he re-shot the opening scenes of a movie. This was Grizzly Adams, which had been made independently for just $165,000. Haggerty persuaded Frawley to remake the whole film, which took $65m at the box office and spawned an NBC television series that ran for 36 episodes in 1977 and 1978 and was also shown here and in Britain.

Plots in the series often revolved around Haggerty saving animals, reflecting the growing power of the green movement and his own interests - he lived on a small ranch near Malibu, where he kept lions, leopards and cougars. He described once being invited to the house of the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. "He took me into his den to see the huge bear he'd shot and had stuffed," Haggerty recalled. "I said to him, 'Hell, any jackass can point a gun at something and kill it. I got a bear that's bigger than yours, and he rides around in the truck with me.'"

Daniel Francis Haggerty was born in Los Angeles on November 19 1942. His parents separated when he was young and as a child he was often in trouble.

After running away from military school, to which his father had sent him when he refused to train as a priest, he became an ironworker and leather craftsman - he later sewed his own clothes for the television series.

At 17, he married Diane Rooker in Las Vegas. ("Her dad wasn't too thrilled," he later admitted.) In the mid-1960s he got small parts in films, such as a hippie in Easy Rider, while working as an animal wrangler and stuntman on television series, including Tarzan.

In 1977 he survived third-degree burns caused by a rum punch setting his beard alight, but his career declined thereafter.

In 1985 he was sent to prison for selling cocaine to two undercover policemen, and in 1991 he fell into a coma after a motorcycle crash. Pope John Paul II sent him a letter praying for his recovery. He later made occasional appearances in low-budget films and tried his hand as a restaurateur.

His first marriage was dissolved in 1984, and that year he married Samantha Hilton. She died in a motorcycle accident in 2008.

He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage and two sons and a daughter from the second. Dan Haggerty died on January 15.

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