Question: Here's what might be an odd question, but I don't know the answer and I bet you do. On BJ and the Bear, why was the chimp called Bear? Rachel S., Ponca City, Okla.
Televisionary: Bear (played by a chimp named Sam) was named for late University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, Rachel. The odd (or, at least, unexpected) part is how indie trucker BJ McCay (Greg Evigan) partnered up with his furry pal. It seems that while BJ was a POW in Vietnam, Bear saved his life by bringing him food.
Now I'm betting one of your next questions will surely be among the following: BJ was a trucker and a Vietnam vet/POW? They had the temerity to have him meet a chimp while starving? What the heck was a chimp doing there?
To which my answers are yes, yes and I don't know. Full disclosure time: I can't remember exactly what Bear was doing in Vietnam, though I understand a group of chimp vets has organized to tell everyone he never really brought BJ anything. Anyway, I'm in good company, since Evigan wasn't sure, either. "I don't even know if there are any chimps in Vietnam," he told TV Guide in 1979. To that I can only add that as far as I know, chimps are native to Africa.
I can tell you that Evigan and Sam weren't exactly best buddies when the series first started. Weighing in at 40 pounds and with the strength of a 200-lb. man, Sam nipped the star more than once in their early days together. But after what crew members referred to as The Night They Had It Out, things improved. "It was rainy, which Sam hates, and we were both irritable from a long day," Evigan recalled. "Well, he bit me on the chest, and I got so mad I just let him have it with the truck's logbook. There's been no problem since. In fact, he's become extremely protective of me. In one scene when I was getting beat up by a couple of guys, he jumped in and started biting them. They kept the cameras rolling and used it in the show."
Overall, the star was happy with his cast mate. "Generally, Sam's a very mellow fellow," he said. "If he weren't, this series could have been a nightmare."
Now, as you may remember, BJ and Bear didn't draw an audience in particular, a male audience on their own. BJ met his share of pretty ladies and corrupt lawmen along the way, and when it returned for its second season (it ran from February 1979 to August 1981), the producers decided to build the former element in as a permanent part of the show. Thus, BJ went from being based in the Georgia sticks to running a trucking concern in Los Angeles with seven gorgeous ladies working for him.
However, at least one of those ladies didn't want the audience getting any ideas. Judy Landers, who played a beauteous driver named, of all things, Stacks, insisted she was not on the show to add a jiggle factor. "I'm flattered that people think of me that way, but I don't think Stacks is a sex object," she said in 1981. "I do other things like being an undercover cat burglar. Stacks has brains. I know people associate giggly with not being very bright, but Stacks knows what she's doing."
Of course she did. But I doubt many people bought into that being the reason she was there, just as there were plenty of people who couldn't quite figure out how the show came to be to begin with. Take TV Guide critic Robert MacKenzie, who questioned the entire trucker cultural phenomenon (which may sound strange to you young 'uns who don't remember it, but believe me, there was one). "I can't tell you how truck drivers came to be our latest folk heroes," he wrote in 1979. "But all you need to sell a movie script, it appears, is a plot about a good ol' boy tearing cross-country in a big rig, outrunning state troopers, wrecking property and chortling 'Tha's a big 10-4, good buddy' on the CB."
And for the record, Evigan himself didn't appear to be completely sold on the idea, either. After the two-hour premiere of BJ ran over Network and a baseball play-off game in the Nielsens, the actor observed that his new show packed plenty of appeal for others. "It just goes to show that the public is more interested in seeing cop cars get smashed up and beautiful women crawling around in the back of a truck than in how a network operates. Or even watch a baseball game," he said. "Personally, I watched the game."