Buck Savage is Born

From lark to liability to legend: how it all happened

 


 

Sgt. Betsy Brantner-Smith | From the August 2010 Issue Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I can vividly recall seeing my first Buck Savage video. It was the mid-1980s and I was a young narc attending a riveting in-service training class about, well, um … OK, I don’t remember the topic or the instructor, but I do recall the moment that he popped in a VHS tape and I heard, “Hi gang. J.D. ‘Buck’ Savage here.”

We always looked forward to videos in class; they usually provided a much-needed break from the monotony of the lecture. But this was a 60-second vignette of a silly looking, overly macho cop with blonde hair and big mustache who delivered an officer survival tip in front of a convenience store while the cashier behind him was robbed at gunpoint. We all laughed, and at the next break a couple of my classmates tried to imitate the cop from the video. More laughs.

I never gave that silly video much thought—until the next time I pulled up to a convenience store. I was undercover, but I was still a cop, and as I parked I suddenly remembered that guy, Buck Something-or-other. “I don’t want to be that guy,” I thought, as I parked well away from the front door, scanning the parking lot.

Before getting out I looked inside the store. The clerk was standing upright, always a good sign, chatting up a customer while he counted out change. There were a few other people in the store, grabbing six packs and bags of chips and so forth. It all seemed pretty normal, so I went in, bought my diet soda, and left. I didn’t know it at the time, but ol’ J.D. “Buck” Savage had just made one more young cop a little bit safer.   

I saw a few more Buck Savage videos over the years, usually while attending in-service, and I heard guys around the station referring to their squad car as a “Mobile Observation Platform” and trying to do the voice. Buck was slowly becoming a part of our police culture.

Talking Head

In 1990, my department subscribed to the Law Enforcement Television Network. It was like CNN for cops, delivered 24/7 via satellite right to our roll-call room. The talking heads at the news desk were usually a former Miss America and some blond guy with a big mustache. She was gorgeous, and he was intense. I thought the guy looked familiar and then it hit me: The voice! It was that goofy cop from the funny videos. But this guy, Dave Smith, seemed so serious, so professional. He and former Miss America Debbie Maffett became as familiar to cops as Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs were to the rest of the world.

In 1996, I attended the National Citizen Police Academy Symposium in Aurora, Ill. I’d been tasked with helping to organize my department’s first CPA. The symposium was great, and I got to hang out with some of my buddies from other departments. We were all thrilled to learn that J.D. “Buck” Savage was going to be our keynote speaker. Wow! The guy from LETN! I wondered if we’d get to shake his hand. Would he wear his uniform? I really hoped he’d do “the voice.”

He looked shorter than I had imagined, and broader in the shoulders. And he didn’t do the voice. He gave a great talk, though. Some of the time he was funny, but mostly he was serious, and inspiring, and he gave me a lot to think about. We all lined up to shake his hand, and he was friendly but distracted, and then he hurried away. Obviously, he was a busy guy with important TV stuff to do.

Years later I learned the truth: His three young kids and their pet rabbit were waiting for him at his hotel. One of the cop’s wives had played babysitter while Dave gave his talk and he didn’t want to inconvenience her any further. Plus, that rabbit had a reputation for getting loose.

I’m pretty sure the kids had something to do with that. I know those kids pretty well now: They’re my step kids. That’s right. In 2001, I became Mrs. J.D. “Buck” Savage, and during our courtship, I finally learned the secret of how Buck Savage was born.

Way Back When

Smith had no intention of becoming a cop. He was going to be a fighter pilot. He soloed three airplanes on his 16th birthday and enrolled in the Naval Academy after graduating high school in 1970. That year he blew out his knee during a wrestling match. The Navy fixed him up but told him he’d never be allowed to fly, so he left Annapolis and enrolled in University of Arizona, Tucson.

Smith fought fires on a hot shot crew in the Coconino Forest in the summers, studied political science and considered becoming a lawyer. As graduation neared, one of Dave’s friends talked him into testing for the Tucson Police Department. At the time, Tucson was the No. 1 city for crime in the U.S. What better place to be a cop?

After a few years with TPD, Smith joined the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) in 1978. Always interested in coaching and human performance, Smith partnered up with Officer Steve Trethewy to become survival and fitness instructors at Arizona Law Enforcement Training Academy in Phoenix. Two naturally funny guys, in their courses they’d assume different characters to demonstrate various training points and bad officer safety. Smith played the hapless, macho cop, and Trethewy was usually some sort of emotionally disturbed person.

In 1980, Smith and Trethewy approached the award-winning DPS Video Unit with the idea to put their characters on film as a bit of comic relief during the boring, but necessary, monthly training videos. Like any good state bureaucrat, the head of the video unit said no. Never guys to give up without a fight, our heroes approached Arizona POST, who was responsible for distributing the equally boring, but necessary, quarterly training videos. 

The head of Arizona POST was a DPS captain who worked out frequently down in the gym near the offices where Smith and Trethewy worked in training. After using what Smith now calls the “power of positive annoyance,” the guys were able to convince the captain to say okay to the funny videos—as long as they contained valid training points. 

Buck is Born

The first Buck Savage was filmed outside of a Circle K convenience store on 19th Avenue in Phoenix. The video unit contacted Circle K’s corporate security and obtained permission to film. The store was near DPS Headquarters and was extremely police-friendly. The film crew had to work around the customers and control traffic in the area, so the Phoenix PD provided on-scene security for the duration.

Several scenarios were outlined based on tragic, real life officer-killed scenarios. Then Trewethy read the story of a patrol lieutenant killed walking into a convenience store while counting his change and said, “This is the one.”

They also made a list of possible names for the character that Smith would play but had yet to make a decision even as the cameras were getting ready to roll. So they showed the list to the Phoenix PD security detail and they chose the now-famous J.D. “Buck” Savage moniker.

The mock Hollywood crew shot five or six takes until the Phoenix guys said, “That one was funny.” And it was, as they say in the business, “a wrap.”

Smith and Trewethy were hailed as brilliant visionaries, and Dave went on to become rich and famous, and we now live comfortably off of the royalties from the Buck Savage Survival Series—right? Don’t I just wish. 

Fast Forward

Fortunately for him, Trethewy got promoted to agent just before “Stop and Rob” aired and he transferred to Intelligence. Smith was also promoted and landed a spot in narcotics. Buck was well-received by the troops, and Smith was feeling pretty cocky until he was confronted at the department gas pumps by the colonel in charge of the Highway Patrol Bureau.

Instead of a friendly handshake, Smith found himself on the receiving end of a major butt-chewing. The colonel began with, “You’re a disgrace to the uniform, Smith!” It went downhill from there.

Not always knowing when to quit, Dave responded: “If we’re the best, then we ought to be able to laugh at ourselves.” Talk about throwing a lit match onto gasoline!

Smith left that impromptu dressing down pretty sure his career with DPS was over. Two more Buck Savage segments were about to be released and the Highway Patrol colonel, Smith was to soon find out, wasn’t the only one in management who thought Smith was an embarrassment to the uniform.

So Smith pondered his bleak-looking future for a couple of weeks. Then he received a phone call from a friend, a major with DPS, with some much-needed good news: The department had just hired a new director, a forward-thinking fellow from Phoenix PD.

At one of the first command staff meetings as everyone scrambled to position themselves on the proper side of the new sheriff in town, the director said, “About this Buck Savage thing …” The we-hate-Smith bandwagon was ready to roll when the new boss unexpectedly exclaimed, “I like it!” What?

The haters suddenly became Buck Savage supporters, fans even. “We think he’s funny too, sir. Yep, that Smith is one funny guy …”

Conclusion

Thanks to Director Tom Milstead, Buck was allowed to live on. Several more segments were filmed and then in 1982 a DPS major passed out free copies of the existing Buck Savage episodes at a training commander’s conference in northern Arizona. From there, Buck went viral. Since these were the pre-YouTube days, police trainers from all over the country obtained VHS copies of the Buck Savage Survival Series by copying someone else’s tape or calling the Arizona DPS Video Unit, who maintained the master tape. 

Smith filmed a total of twelve Buck Savage episodes. Buck was a narc, a detective, an academy supervisor, even a motor officer, but he is probably best known as the bumbling FTO to “Rookie,” who was played by DPS officer Ed Lucas. Smith’s Buck Savage fame ultimately helped lead to a career in training, including the Calibre Press Street Survival seminar and the Law Enforcement Television Network.

About the time that the master tape was wearing out, a good friend of Dave’s digitized all of the “Bucks” and pretty soon, JD Buck Savage had his own website, a MySpace page and of course, you can friend him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. Thanks to the Internet and the wit and wisdom of Dave Smith, Officer J.D. Buck Savage continues to inspire, entertain, and truly save cops’ lives.

 




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Sgt. Betsy Brantner-Smith

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith is a 28-year veteran of the Naperville (Ill.) Police Department and has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training.

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