Perhaps no one epitomized the chopper lifestyle more than Dan Haggerty, who was felled by spinal cancer at the age of 73. The biker, actor, artist, bodybuilder, stuntman, animal trainer and wild-haired outdoorsman was best known for his 1977-’78 TV role as Grizzly Adams, mountain man and accused outlaw, roles many of us have aspired to, at least in our heads. To the chopper rank and file, he is immortalized as the builder of the Captain America and Billy bikes in the 1969 cult hit, Easy Rider, in which he also had a bit part as a hippy. The movie changed the chopper’s image forever.
At 6’1”, bushy bearded and broad, Haggerty certainly looked the part whether riding chops, wrestling bears or spinning wrenches. Haggerty could be seen at the Love Ride or driving in his pickup with his real-life pet bear, Ben. His tough, steely exterior, however, belied Haggerty’s reputation as a charitable family man, a painter and sculptor whose favorite activity was not rolling hellbent for leather and the next cold beer, but rather being with his family and “learning from nature,” as he once was quoted. It was this virtual Viking on wheels whose real-life friends included wildcats, dogs and most things that lived in the deep woods, who will be remembered with fondness, admiration and respect. Haggerty later appeared in a number of movie and TV roles but never regained the popularity he enjoyed during the ‘70s.
The gentle giant was not without controversy. Although largely credited for building the Easy Rider bikes, it is now believed the 1949-’52 hardtail Panheads were made by African-American chopper builders Cliff Vaughns and Ben Hardy, who followed Peter Fonda’s design cues. Hardy and Vaughns received no credit for the two Billy and two (possibly three) Captain America bikes made for the film, all of which were reportedly either crashed or stolen. Haggerty accessorized the choppers and served as the film’s bike wrangler. In recent years, the iconic Captain America bike has been a point of contention. Haggerty claimed the lone surviving Captain America was in his possession, which he rebuilt and allegedly sold—more than once.
The first Captain America was privately sold in 1996 for $63,500. A second Captain America bike was auctioned in 2014 for a staggering $1.35 million. Both bikes were authenticated by Haggerty. Peter Fonda also authenticated the auctioned bike and signed its tank, but later said he was duped by Haggerty. There was no reported rebuttal by Haggerty to Fonda’s claim nor known civil or criminal action taken against Haggerty. A number of exacting replicas have been built, but these two are the only Captain America bikes claimed to be original to the movie.
In 1988, Haggerty served 90 days for selling cocaine to undercover cops. In 1991, the actor nearly died from injuries sustained in a bike wreck when he slid his Harley under a van. Haggerty suffered a broken pelvis, crushed leg and a head injury that required 200 stitches and put him in a coma. Over the next several years he underwent 18 surgeries. In another painful accident, he was hospitalized with second and third degree burns on his face and arms in what has been described as the “flaming rum cocktail incident.” It is not clear whether the drink was his or another party goer’s, or if the cocktail was spilled on him or he tried to consume the fiery aperitif.
Like any biker worth his motor oil, Haggerty possessed a healthy dose of rebel blood. He repeatedly ran away from military school, where he had been sent after his parents divorced. He didn’t get into serious trouble and eventually calmed down a little, leading a healthy, almost wholesome 1950s teenage life naturally pursuing sports and girls.
The nature man was also not without a share of sadness. His first marriage to Diane Rooker ended in divorce and his second wife, Samantha Hilton, was killed in a motorcycle wreck in 2008. He also lost a daughter, Tammy. Haggerty died in Burbank, CA not far from where he grew up. He lived a modest life, eschewing the Hollywood lifestyle and surrounded by his beloved beasts. He is survived by five children, Tracy, Cody, Dylan, Megan and Don. A memorial service is planned but no details were available at press-time.