The American comedy series, BJ and the Bear, was a big hit when it was launched in the late 1970s. Featuring a trucker named Billie Joe “BJ” McKay, who travels the highways with his pet chimpanzee, Bear, the series trucked on for 48 episodes and the duo had many adventures while on the road, often helping to solve crimes.
As a freelance trucker, BJ was able to take the jobs he wanted and travel all over the country, with his trusty chimpanzee companion, who was named in honour of Bear Bryant – the University of Alabama’s famous football coach. Bryant was coach for 25 years and won six national and 13 conference championships before retiring in 1982.
When BJ and the Bear was launched on 10th February 1979, Bryant was at the height of his success and trucking was a popular subject for movies and television series. There had been a succession of CB Radio and trucking films, including White Line Fever in 1975, Smokey and the Bandit in 1977 and Convoy in 1978.
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The television series was based on a pilot movie called The Foundlings, released on 4th October 1978, written by Glen A Larson and Christopher Crowe.
BJ (played by Greg Evigan) was a Vietnam veteran who had spent two years as a helicopter pilot, before turning to trucking after his discharge from the military. Promoted to a captain, he earned his distinguished service cross during the war – he had also been a prisoner of war for four months.
He always takes his pet chimpanzee (who has been with him since Vietnam) on the road as his travelling companion. The Bear wears human clothing (normally cute little children’s dungarees) and has human attributes that make him often seem more like a small person than an animal.
The premise of the show sees BJ becoming involved in the local community that he travels through, uncovering and solving crimes, usually at the request of a local lady who asks for his help.
It was a successful formula for two seasons of the show, so there was no need to vary it! BJ never settles down in any of the communities, despite becoming embroiled in the local residents’ lives until the crime is solved, at which point he goes on his way.
Changes took place during season three, when BJ has settled down and opens Bear Enterprises, his own Los Angeles-based trucking company. His crime-fighting continues when he locks horns with the head of the LA Special Crimes Action Team, Rutherford Grant (Murray Hamilton).
As a secret partner in a rival trucking company, Grant is corrupt and causes problems for BJ by preventing him from hiring experienced truckers.
Not one to be beaten, BJ hires seven female truckers, in an era when trucking was even more of a male domain than it is today. Needless to say, BJ’s gamble pays off and his lady truckers become queens of the road.
The Bear was played by an animal actor who was around 20 years old at the time of filming BJ and the Bear.
He even appeared on the television show, Battle of the Network Stars, in which stars from CBS, ABC and NBC competed in various sporting events. He made a personal appearance at Pepperdine University with Evigan, becoming a celebrity in his own right.
After the show ended its three-series run in August 1981, Bear was in line to become the star of the new US sitcom, Mr Smith, in 1983. However, after successfully auditioning for the role of a talking chimpanzee, network chiefs decided the lead character would be an orangutan instead.
Sadly, little information can be found about what happened to the Bear after his period of Hollywood stardom came to an end. He appeared in Japanese television commercials for Tokashito Banana Beer, but there’s no evidence of his career taking off again in the same way as it had flourished in BJ and the Bear.
BJ drove a red and white Kenworth K100 Aerodyne truck – a popular trucking vehicle, which today has its own enthusiasts’ group, The Kenworth K100 Club.
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