Professional football player turned actor/director/producer Fred Dryer was perhaps best known as the star of the NBC action series "Hunter" (1984-1991), which dominated weekend programming for most of its network run.
Born John Frederick Dryer on July 6, 1946 in Hawthorne, CA, Dryer was raised in Lawndale, CA and attended Lawndale High School and El Camino College before moving on to San Diego State University, where he played football for the Aztecs. Once there, the 6'6" Dryer quickly made a name for himself during the 1967-68 season, earning the Chase Memorial Trophy as the school's best lineman of '68. His professional football career began the following year with the New York Giants, but he returned to his home state in 1972 to finish his professional career with the Los Angeles Rams, retiring in 1981. Among his achievements with the Rams: a trip to the Super Bowl in 1980 (where they were defeated by the Pittsburgh Steelers), and a citation in the football record books as the only player in NFL history to make two safeties in a single game (against the Green Bay Packers in 1973).
Post-football, Dryer followed many former players into television commentary, but he abandoned that career after just ten games due to the limitations he saw in the format. It was in the early '80s that he made the move into acting, having been an already well known natural comic on the field, and an acting student to actress Nina Foch since 1979. On top of that, Dryer had already earned his Screen Actors Guild membership card thanks to appearances in the Disney comedy "Gus" (as a football player, natch), and the broad sketch comedy film "Prime Time" (1977), in which he played himself. Guest appearances on series like "Laverne and Shirley" (ABC, 1976-1983) and "Lou Grant" (CBS, 1977-1982) led to a substantial supporting role in the campy mini-series "The Star Maker" (1981) and more dramatic parts, including an absentee dad in the sweet family drama "Something So Right" (1982).
That same year, Dryer auditioned for and was a finalist for the role of Sam Malone in the new NBC sitcom, "Cheers" (1982-93), but reportedly lost the role to Ted Danson when the character's previous career was switched from pro football to baseball (With no hard feelings, Dryer would make several appearances on the iconic show as Dave Richards, a former teammate of Sam Malone's, working as a TV sports commentator).
Dryer's next attempt at landing series work proved more successful. Producer Stephen J. Cannell's "Hunter" was loosely based on the idea behind the Clint Eastwood feature "The Enforcer," in which his Dirty Harry character was partnered with a female cop. In "Hunter," Dryer was an equally hard-bitten cop (with a similarly high-powered handgun) who worked alongside a beautiful but gritty female detective (Stephanie Kramer). The combination of action and light drama took a while to catch on with audiences (no doubt in part to the show being bounced around the network lineup repeatedly during its first few years) until it found a loyal viewership in the late 1980s, and retained it until the end of its run in 1991. During that time, Dryer joined the production team as an executive producer and occasional director, moving the character beyond just the gun and the catch phrase ("works for me"). Under Dryer's watch, Hunter was given opportunities to crack a smile and even enjoy a romance from time to time - though never with his partner. That was a no-no, despite fans fervent wish that they hook up. In the show's final years, he even took on domestic issues by dealing with the young daughter of his love interest, Sgt. Chris Novak (Lauren Lane).
Dryer's tenure on "Hunter" prevented him from appearing in other projects, save for "Cheers" and a single theatrical feature, a military action film titled "Death Before Dishonor" which suffered from poor distribution. When "Hunter" wrapped, Dryer found himself with an enormous fan base thanks to international television sales, particularly in China, where he occasionally mentioned the possibility of moving there to cater to his fans.
Following his "Hunter" success in all its forms, Dryer made occasional appearances in independent film and television productions, but remained busiest working for his own production company, which made several "Hunter" reunion features through the years. He tried his hand at a second series, a likable actioner with comic overtones titled "Land's End" (syndicated, 1995-96), but ended up limiting his post-"Hunter" appearances to guest shots on other series, including several turns as voice-over talent on "Justice League" (Cartoon Network, 2001- ), playing the DC Comics military hero, Sgt. Rock.