Stars: Dan Haggerty, Kim Darby, Noah Beery, Keenan Wynn, Sydney Penny, June Lockhart and Chuck Connors
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I believe that Haggerty was perfectly cast as Grizzly Adams. He grew up around animals, with his family owning and operating a wild animal attraction. I’ve seen some of his other work and have to admit that he wasn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he had a lot of characteristics that translated easily to this role. At 6’ 1”, he wasn’t as tall as I imagined him, but he was a big, burly and barrel chested man, easily cast as bikers or villains. However, he seems to have been a nice guy, something very much underlined on the occasions I met him at the Wild Western Festival in Glendale, AZ, and he always did better as nice guys on screen. Adams is a simple man who speaks simple dialogue but means it. He’s big enough and tough enough, not only to bring up a bear as his friend but also to tell the truth, even when it’s the hard thing to do. He cares about his daughter, of course, but he also cares about all of humanity, intrinsically not through choice, and all of animalkind too. So Haggerty was a easy casting decision.
And it does, as much as it’s clearly a TV movie in most regards. The story is predictable and the direction is dire but it plays well anyway because of the locations and the cast of respected television actors. Many of these show up right at the outset, as Cora Adams, Grizzly’s sister, is buried. It’s believable small town stuff, with this talented cast grounding proceedings without even trying. The town doesn’t have a priest, so Sheriff Hawkins, played by Noah Beery Jr, leads the service. The son of Noah Beery Sr and the nephew of Wallace Beery, he’s surely best known today as James Garner’s father in The Rockford Files. Young Peg Adams, Grizzly’s daughter, wants to stay with Kate Brady, played by Kim Darby, the little girl in True Grit. Instead the sheriff’s wife, Liz Hawkins, in the aging form of June Lockhart from Lost in Space, takes her in, until the orphan’s home can come and pick her up. Given that this will surely bring Adams down from the mountains, Frank Briggs, played by the Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, wants him promptly caught.
This performance is very much in that vein, but he’s wooden for the first half of the film, just throwing an evil look at the camera, or anyone who mentions Grizzly Adams, and hoping that’s enough. ‘He killed my partner,’ he tells his men after Cora’s funeral. ‘I want him to pay, trial or no trial.’ As the title suggests, of course, Adams is captured alive. He sneaks into town under the noses of Briggs’s men to grab Peg, but is noticed heading for the woods and takes a shot to the leg. He soon collapses, about to get caught easily by the pursuing posse right after the first commercial break. It’s easy to see where the breaks are, as the direction seems to care about nothing more than how to pace things so that they can break every fifteen minutes. Only one section runs a little long, prompting the following one to run short to get it all back on track. It’s scary when this is the most accomplished aspect of Don Keeslar’s direction. I truly hope that he was hamstrung by static television cameras, because otherwise his work is painfully unimaginative.
The trial is well staged, full of simple words delivered by simple men who sit on simple wooden benches. For all the dismal direction of Keeslar, who rarely moves the camera and has his editor cut back and forth in conversation without any apparent realisation that there’s more to cinematic art, it plays well because his direction is as simple as everything we’re watching on screen. Of course, the jury finds Adams guilty because the evidence says so, even if the key witness is clearly lying; we’ve watched enough legal shows to see that the hypothesis Adams comes up with is obviously true. I was more engrossed in Tom Quigley, the prosecution’s star witness, a new man in town at the time who was promptly employed by Briggs in the aftermath of the murder and is doing well as the foreman on his ranch. He’s played by G W Bailey, a good actor who looks a lot younger here than he would as Lt Harris in the Police Academy series, starting only two years later. He does a good job too, another simple man struggling because he has to lie.
I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes that follow, even if they were predictable. Once the last commercials are over, everything is so obvious that you might think that you’re writing the script from your armchair and the screen is merely reacting to your ideas through the magic of telepathy. Fortunately Connors is able to move now and add some body language to his pursuit of Adams, his tall, thin body standing out against even the gorgeous mountainous landscape of Utah. The predictability takes the edge off but the dialogue and acting brings it back a little. Even Sydney Penny, a ten year old girl who couldn’t dream of the future soap opera career she’d carve out with runs in Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful, All My Children and Days of Our Lives, gives a strong showing as Peg Adams, hauled along in her fugitive father’s wake. It’s sentimentality up the wazoo, but she does it very capably indeed, adding emotion to scenes even as her more experienced co-stars play it a little calmer.
Fortunately Haggerty was on strong form here. He was so closely tied to Grizzly Adams that it’s strange to discover that a couple of other actors took on that role in later years, including Gene Edwards, who was a stunt double in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Haggerty owned the role and, four years after the TV show was oddly cancelled, given its spectacular ratings, he fell right back into it without appearing to even try. No wonder he made so many other films that were clearly Grizzly Adams knockoffs, even one in between the original feature and the show, named The Adventures of Frontier Fremont; much later on, in 1997, he’d make Grizzly Mountain, with his son Dylan, and its sequel, Escape to Grizzly Mountain. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the Grizzly Adams show but I felt right at home watching this. It may be of lesser quality than the original film and perhaps the series but it’s half a dozen films in one and it ends things neatly. Haggerty wasn’t yet diagnosed with cancer when he picked this, but it’s a fitting epitaph.