By Sue Reilly
January 16, 1978 12:00 PM

Until NBC’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and its star, Dan Haggerty, no actor had ever frolicked opposite a grizzly bear. The species Ursus horribills is so untamable and treacherous that in all previous movie and TV sequences the beasts were controlled by unseen electric wires. But subterfuge was not for Haggerty, an animal trainer before he was an actor, and his 607-pound co-star, Ben, who apprenticed as a pet and in a circus. Then, just before Thanksgiving, Grizzly Adams production was abruptly shut down after a near-fatal accident to Haggerty.

Ben was not at fault; a fan was. At Dan’s 35th birthday fete at L.A.’s Red Onion restaurant, a celebrant inadvertently splashed him with a flaming rum drink, immediately igniting the hirsute headliner. His quick-thinking wife, Diane, recounts Dan, “had a glass of Perrier in her hands, which she threw in my face. Then she pushed me to the ground and put out the flames with her body.” Just a few days before, as it happened, she’d read in the paper about the Sherman Oaks Burn Center, and rushed him there. “I was led to it by some miracle,” Diane says now. “I didn’t really know where I was going.”

Haggerty, a Thoreauback among Hollywood types, supplemented the center’s pioneering techniques with his animal lore. He had only second-degree burns on his face, fortunately, but on his arms the damage was third-degree, requiring massive skin grafts from his buttocks. “The first couple of days I just lay in the dark room drinking water, like a wounded wolf trying to heal himself,” he recollects stoically. “Nurses tried to give me morphine and encouraged me to open the curtains. But sometimes animals know more than people about healing.” He refused painkillers and adds, “When the doctors warned me to turn over once every 15 minutes so fluid wouldn’t collect in my lungs and give me pneumonia, I got myself out of bed and started walking.” At one point he sneaked a look at his scorched face in a chrome towel dispenser, “because there are no mirrors in a burn ward.” The hospital had hoped to discharge him in a month or so. Haggerty was home in 10 days. “When I was leaving, one of the doctors shook his head and said, ‘Jesus Christ, you’re a tough bastard.’ ” Next week Dan will be back before the cameras on location at Payson, Ariz.

That’s not a flack’s fantasy but the whole truth—unlike Dan’s romanticized family-hour series. The real 19th-century Grizzly Adams was a criminal who fled to the wilderness to escape justice and then peddled his supposedly beloved fauna to carnivals. Dan, too, was a renegade as a kid, repeatedly running away from the military school where his parents (who separated when he was 3) had dispatched him. Finally, at 16, he settled with his Hollywood technician dad and stepmom in Burbank. He remembers it as “a life right out of American Graffiti,” centered around high school athletics, cars and girls. Diane was his honey already and they married at 17 at the wedding chapel of Vegas’ Silver Slipper Hotel. “Her dad wasn’t too thrilled,” notes Dan, “but I knew a lot about life.” First as an ironworker and then a leather craftsman (he still sews his own TV costumes), Haggerty raised his family, which grew from two daughters to a menagerie once he moved to a little ranch in Malibu Canyon. “I told the landlady I was thinking about getting a lion and she thought it was a wonderful idea,” he marvels. “We moved in right away.” (All of their brood, which also includes a leopard, a cougar and a tiger, were either born in captivity or captured after being injured.)

Thanks to his uncanny kinship with beasts, Dan got movie jobs as stunt-man and double (“Actors didn’t like animals leaping on them”). That led to performing himself in TV commercials with critters (Ralston-Purina, Del Monte, Alcoa). Finally, in 1973, producer Patrick Frawley, who was stuck with a half-shot movie called Grizzly Adams, asked him to star in some revised opening scenes. All or nothing, said Haggerty, and he redid the movie on a total budget of $165,000. It made almost $30 million, not counting the 1976 series sale to NBC.

Stardom has not affected the natural man. The Haggerty family car is a pickup truck and they live modestly near the Burbank airport while waiting to build a house of Dan’s own design behind Malibu, where they can bring their pets out of boarding. “Dan has no appetite for Hollywood life,” understates Diane. “We’ve had the same friends for years.” Haggerty recalls the time “Otis Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, invited me to his house and then took me into his den to see the huge bear he’d shot and had stuffed. I told him,” Dan continues, ” ‘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.’ ” And that’s no shaggy-star story.