One of the most popular shows on the Outdoor Channel is Grateful Nation, where host, actor, and former Army Ranger Tim Abell takes military vets with disabilities on dream hunts to express our appreciation for their service and sacrifice.
In some ways, the blockbuster hit Avatar reminds me of Tim Abell and Grateful Nation, as both show military men and women going hunting, and honoring the healing power of nature.
Tim understands the importance of the military for our national security, as he was an Army Ranger for five years. Interestingly, it was in the Army where he got his first taste of acting.
Tim was an Army Ranger for five years it was in the Army where he got his baptism as an actor. Tim served with the 3rd US Infantry Regiment – “The Old Guard.” Following the United States’ bicentennial, the regiment began hosting an evening pageant called the “Torchlight Tattoo” in front of the Jefferson Memorial throughout the summer months, in which Old Guard soldiers would reenact scenes from US military history. An expert horseman, Tim auditioned for the Torchlight Tattoo and won not one, but two parts, playing Robert E. Lee and Andrew Jackson charging into battle on their horses (at different times, of course). A longer version of the Torchlight Tattoo called “The Spirit of America” went on tour around the country and Tim became a touring actor. Tim caught the acting bug from those experiences and it led him to the West Coast where his career as an actor took off.
Tim’s choice to become a ranger, as well as the host of Grateful Nation–which he describes as “American sportsmen for our troops”–was influenced by growing up immersed in hunting and gun culture.
The youngest of three children, Tim grew up in the Maryland and Virginia area, where summers were spent fishing on the Chesapeake for striped bass, blue fish, blue crabs and oysters in his father’s fifty-year-old 47-foot bay built boat Lena M. He also took up martial arts and boxing, and under the guidance of his uncle Tim found a love for the land while hunting deer, wild turkey and raccoon on the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia.
Raised in Manassas, Virginia, “I started out hunting squirrels and ducks with my uncle,” Tim says. “In high school, we used to take our shotguns to school, drop them off with the principal during the day, and then pick them up after school to go hunting,” Tim says, adding, “and there was no problem.”
After his stint as a Ranger, he attended the University of Maryland, but he dropped out to pursue an acting career. His first major role was on the Internet soap opera The Spot, but his military background and training in martial arts led to the roles he most often plays–a warrior. Tim Abell has since appeared in 62 TV shows and feature films to date.
Some of his most notable appearances include the shows CSI: New York, CSI: Miami, NCIS, JAG, as well as playing Benny Ray Riddle, a major character in the three-year run of the Soldier of Fortune, Inc. TV series. This year, Tim has appeared in: Clubhouse, Soldiers of Fortune, Hatfields and McCoys: Bad Blood, and Snow White: A Deadly Summer. Upcoming are Crossroads, Buttermilk Sky, and The Hard Ride, in which he plays Buffalo Bill.
In 2005, Tim was the lead in the feature Soldier of God, about a Knight Templar who joins forces with a Muslim to survive. The film won the Berkeley Film and Video Festival and the Deep Ellum Film Festival.
It takes guts to be a Ranger, and maybe some of that influences Tim, because it takes guts to be a Hollywood actor who hosts a hunting show.
Tim says that he hunted very little for almost 10 years straight, including his five years in the Army (when he only went out on leave when he got back home) and then afterwards when he directed his focus to acting. Ironically, his love for hunting was rekindled on the set of Soldier of Fortune in Montreal, when one of the other actors had booked a caribou and bear hunt and needed a partner. This led to reigniting his love for hunting, and when the show got back to LA for more shooting, he started hunting with some of Hollywood’s “Giraffe Society”: people who stick their necks out for hunting like John Milius, Gerald MacRaney and Tom Selleck.
The gauntlet for a hunting actor starts in the casting room. You walk into a room and do your audition and any number of things can affect whether you get the job: your look, your attitude, your height, weight, accent or something you say or don’t say. Can your private life even influence casting? You betcha.
When he was first approached to host The Federal Experience, he pondered whether he wanted to risk his career. He decided, “if I take flak for this, there is something wrong. My uncle got me hunting and it really changed my life. I am politically unspoken and I wanted to put a good face on hunting, so I decided then it was worth it. It’s giving back, which is part of the hunting tradition.”
His agents and manager did not want him to tell people he was doing a hunting show at first. Tim persisted. “Now they have come to accept it, especially with the new show,” he says.
In the remake of the classic Red Dawn, Tim trained the kids who are the leads to use weapons and hunt. Some of them were not happy about being shown as hunters, but Tim says that some long talks about the realities of survival seem to quiet them down.
I asked Tim if he has ever lost work because of his often support for hunting and guns. He replied “yes,” and told me about being cast as a guest star in a major TV series, only to be cut because of “his politics.” Another time he lost an interview to a journalist who did not like mounted deer heads on his office wall and a bearskin rug on the floor.
Another way that opponents of hunting influence programs is by the fact that since 1980, the American Humane Association has a contract with Screen Actors Guild that results in a special unit of the AHA monitoring any TV or movie set in the US where there are SAG actors and animals are used.
The need for monitoring became clear years ago when some films used “running W” trip wires to make horses fall. The wires also broke legs of others, and some were killed on the set. In one shot of the 1939 film Jesse James, a horse and rider were sent hurling over a 70-foot cliff into a raging river. The stuntman was unhurt, but the horse’s back was broken in the fall and it died.
The AHA Film Unit reviews scripts, and then they send out monitors to be on the set. The monitor is the only one, other than the director, who has the power to shut down a production. If all goes well, they place the “No Animals Were Harmed In The Making of This Film” approval in the end credits.
Tim ran into the monitors on the set of Miracle at Sage Creek, a family western starring David Carradine, Michael Parks, and Wes Studi.
“The director asked me to ride a horse across a creek,” Tim says. “And then he asked me to do it again, and again and again.”
It is not unusual for a director to do multiple takes in a film or TV show (In a movie I was in, Jack directed by Francis Ford Coppola, we did 27 takes of the same scene). They do this to use different camera angles, or until they get the look of what they want for the performance.
“This animal monitor comes up to me and asks for my name and SAG member number,” Tim says. “I gave that to them and then asked what was the problem.”
The monitor told him that he had ridden a horse four times through a stream and there were rocks in the streambed that could hurt the horse’s hooves.
The director, who had asked for the four takes, stepped in and took the conflict away from Tim. No one wants to see animals exploited for entertainment, but one wonders how someone representing an organization with a very strident political position can get so much power.
If you want to show a hunting scene where an animal is killed, as opposed to outdoor TV, you can’t shoot an animal for a dramatic show. You either have to use footage from someone else shooting the animal, do it with animatronics and stuffed animals, or as in Avatar, you use computer graphics. Or, you can shoot the film outside of the US, so no monitors are present (as they did for Brokeback Mountain).
Hosting Grateful Nation clearly makes Tim Abell a member of the Giraffe Society, the actors, directors, producers, and writers who are willing to stick their necks out and give public support to hunting and shooting sports. Some fellow members of this tribe include Kurt Russell, Tom Selleck, Gerald MacRaney, Jeff Foxworthy, Jameson Parker, Leslie Easterboork, Eva Longoria, John Milius, Marshall Teague, the Mandrell sisters and Diamond Farnsworth.
Tim is a Life member of the SCI and NRA, and an NRA Certified Instructor. He trains boy scouts, including his two sons. “Learning self-defense,” he says, “is part of growing up. You can shirk away from this or take it on. The better face we can put on hunting and shooting, the more likely we will be able to have our kids enjoy it.”
Images courtesy Tim Abell