Buckskin Becomes Him
‘Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead’

Fess Parker
August 16, 1924-March 18, 2010

Fess Parker, a cultural icon in the 1950s for his portrayal of Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier,” for Walt Disney’s company, and whose popularity underscored the selling power of the nascent medium of television, died on March 18 at his home in Santa Ynez Valley, CA. He was 85.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, raised in San Angelo, Parker served a stint in the Marine Corps in WWII, returned to the Lone Star State upon his discharge and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in history in 1950. With a year left on his GI Bill, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he studied drama while working towards a master’s degree in theater history. He began landing small parts in films, mostly after becoming a Warner Bros. contract player in 1951. He was discovered by Walt Disney, who saw Parker in the sci-fi film Them!, playing a pilot who winds up institutionalized after claiming his plane had been downed by giant flying insects. Disney was screening the film to get a look at James Arness for the title role in a planned film about frontiersman/politician/soldier Davy Crockett. After meeting with Parker (who brought along his guitar and sang a song for the boss), Disney hired him over Arness; another Crockett candidate, veteran Buddy Ebsen, was instead selected to play Crockett’s comedic sidekick, backwoods George Russell.

Parker, dark, handsome and physically imposing, but with an abiding gentleness in his soft Texas drawl, proved a perfect fit for both the Crockett character and the Eisenhower era—humble as he was, Crockett projected nothing so much as a can-do spirit, no matter how daunting the task ahead; his strength and fortitude, coupled to a winning humility and moral rectitude (“Be sure you’re right, then go ahead” was his motto), defined the mainstream media’s idealized American character.

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett: Remember the Alamo!

Aired on ABC-TV’s Disneyland starting on December 15, 1945, three episodes of the Crockett story—culminating in his death at the Battle of the Alamo (although Crockett’s death was never shown—at the end, all his resources and ammunition spent, he was fighting off the Mexican army by wielding his rifle as a club, in what became an enduring image of Crockett’s heroic stand against insurmountable odds that also symbolized American resolve in the Cold War era)—set off a national craze for all things Crockett—lunch pails, faux buckskin shirts, all kinds of trinkets, and, most of all, coonskin caps not nearly as plush as the one Crockett sported so casually every week. A single, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” written by George Bruns and Tom W. Blackburn, was a hit for three artists in 1955: the first version, by Bill Hayes, heard on the TV show, topped the chart from March 26 through April 23, 1955; Parker’s own recording peaked at #6; and a rendition by Tennessee Ernie Ford was a crossover smash, at #4 on the country chart and #5 on the pop chart (Ford’s was also #1 on the Cash Box chart at this time). Parker’s recording was featured twice in the film Back To the Future, once on a jukebox, and in a later scene showing the Baines brothers all in coonskin caps. A year later, Dick James recorded the song as the B side of his hit single, the Carl Sigman-penned theme song for the TV series Robin Hood, and Guy Miller cut it as the A side of a single with “Robin Hood” on the B side. Even bluegrass giant Mac Wiseman had a hit with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” in 1955, at #10 on the country chart. (The Supremes recorded it, too, but in 1967, long after Crockett fever had subsided.) In fact, an artist or group in practically every succeeding pop music generation has seen fit to test the waters with a version of the Crockett theme song—giving it a lifespan far longer than that of the coonskin caps. “It was an explosion beyond anyone’s comprehension,” Parker said in a 1994 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “The power of television, which was still new, was demonstrated for the first time.”

Even Walt Disney admitted to being taken unawares by the fuss over Crockett. “By the time the first show finally got on the air,” he noted, “we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing off Davy at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest overnight hits in TV history, and there were just three films and a dead hero.”

In response, the studio rushed two “prequel” Crockett episodes into production, and edited the original trio of shows into a feature film, Davy Crockett, King Of the Wild Frontier, released in May 1955. The two “prequel” segments were also edited into a feature film, Davy Crockett and The River Pirates, released in 1956.

Fess Parker’s version of ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett,’ a #6 pop hit in 1955—one of three hit ‘Davy Crockett’ singles that year

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times several years ago, Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said Disney’s Davy Crockett “really brought American history—indeed, a Disney version of American history—to the playground as well as to the American living room.

“You not only could watch these programs,” Thompson observed, “but you could play them, dress up like them, make the Davy Crockett aesthetic infiltrate every part of your life. And of course, those coonskin caps: No self-respecting kid under the age of 12 could go through American life without one.”

Being under contract to Disney, Parker was not allowed to pursue more challenging roles in other studios’ films: John Ford wanted him for the role played by Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers, but Walt Disney himself turned down Ford, and, Parker said years later, “Ford never forgave me for that. He thought it was my decision.” On Disney's advice, Parker also turned down a role opposite Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop. He continued turning in solid, affecting performances in Disney films, including two of the studio’s best live action movies, Old Yeller and The Great Locomotive Chase.

Parker left Disney in 1958, telling reporters at the time: “While I regard Mr. Disney as a good friend and a genius, he’s set in his ideas. We don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on my new ambition to spread out.” In a later interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said the studio “had no experience with human beings as performers. They were really all animation.”

However, in four years with Paramount Parker had mixed luck in his post-Crockett persona; a 1962 TV series for ABC, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, lasted only 26 weeks before being cancelled. He did better, much better, by donning buckskin again to portray Davy Crockett’s frontier kinsman, Daniel Boone, which became one of the highest rated shows on TV between 1964 and the end of its run in 1970. After turning down the title role in McCloud, he retired when his 1974 sitcom, The Fess Parker Show, fizzled in the ratings.

fessBut Parker was nothing if not enterprising. When acting stopped working out, he invested successfully in a mobile-home park in Santa Barbara, CA, acquired other real estate holdings and eventually opened, to great success, Fess Parker’s Red Lion Resort. In 1987 he brought a 714-acre ranch in Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, and converted it to the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyards. Its inaugural harvest came in 1989, and by 2001 it had more than 30 medals. Parker’s son, Eli (Fess III); is president and director of winemaking and vineyard operation; daughter Ashley, became VP of marketing and sales. Parker’s wife, Marcella, whom he married in 1960, is credited with the landscaping and interior decoration.  In 1998 the family bought the landmark Grand Hotel in Los Olivos, which is now Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa.

Long a favorite with the locals in his area, Parker raised the community’s ire in 2004 when he announced plans to sell 745 acres of ranchland to the local Chumash Indians as part of a joint venture to build up to 500 luxury homes, a resort hotel, two championship golf courses and an equestrian center on the property. Under the terms of the deal, the tribe would annex the land on sovereign land, thereby avoiding zoning laws and land-use regulations. A boycott of Parker’s wines ensued as part of a protest against the deal, but Parker, in a “be sure you’re right, then go ahead” moment, told the Times, “It does give me great pleasure to do this for the Indians. If they don’t deserve to live in the most beautiful portion of this valley, who does?”

A year later the deal fell through when Parker and the Chumash leaders could not agree on a number of critical details, including the value of the land and the size of the proposed hotel. As the Times notes, however strained his relations with his neighbors, Parker remained popular with tourists, many of whom had grown up with Davy Crockett on TV and sought him out at his winery for autographs and photos—and then, having traveled full circle from the days of coonskin caps and faux buckskin apparel, settled into the autumn of their years with a glass of Fess Parker wine.

fess“I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Parker said in his 1994 interview with the Plain Dealer. “I’ve lived long enough and observed enough to make myself very comfortable with the realization that the Disney films and particularly Davy Crockett gave me an image that is unbelievably durable. It’s been 40 years and people are still talking about it.”

In addition to Marcella, his wife of 50 years, and his children, Parker is survived by 11 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. —David McGee

For those interested in honoring Fess Parker’s memory, his children, Eli and Ashley, suggest a donation to Direct Relief International, which, according to its website, “provides medical assistance to improve the quality of life for people victimized by poverty, disaster, and civil unrest at home and throughout the world.” Direct Relief International can be accessed at http://www.directrelief.org/.

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