R. I. P., Fess Parker

Like millions of other kids, I idolized Davy Crockett and the man who played him, Fess Parker…so this is a sad day for me and other lifelong fans, even though I know he lived a good life for more than 85 years.

One of my clearest memories from childhood is donning a coonskin cap and singing one line of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” in a nursery school assembly. I believe I was four years old. Many years later I got to meet Fess Parker, and spent an unforgettable day with him at his beautiful winery in Los Olivos, California. That’s where I shot an interview for the Davy Crockett DVD I hosted and co-produced as part of the Walt Disney Treasures series.

Meeting a childhood idol is a risky proposition, but Fess—

—didn’t let me down: he was charming, candid, and generous with his time. He had great recall of the days surrounding his ascent to stardom, from doing bit parts in TV shows and movies to his hiring for the role of Davy. He spoke warmly of colleagues like Crockett costars Bill Bakewell, who introduced him to the charitable Motion Picture and Television Fund, and veteran Basil Ruysdael, who gave him common-sense advice about acting.

And while Parker had his share of differences with Walt Disney, early on over a cut of the merchandising rights, and later, when he was told that Walt stood in the way of him making movies for other studios (including Bus Stop and The Searchers, according to the actor), he was sensible enough to realize that there was no point in grinding an axe after so many years. Ultimately, he was grateful for the opportunity Disney gave him. And he was much too polite a man to speak ill of his longtime boss.

For those of you who don’t know, or don’t recall, folk hero Davy Crockett was the subject of a three-part series during the first season of Walt Disney’s Disneyland TV show. In those days of three networks—long before cable TV or home video—the audience was enormous, and almost literally overnight, the coonskin-capped backwoodsman became a national phenomenon. His catchy theme song became a best-selling record that remained on the charts for months, and every red-blooded boy in America memorized the lyrics about the man “who killed him a b’ar when he was only three.”

As proof that Disney and company didn’t expect Davy to take off, there were no plans for merchandising when the shows went on the air! The studio’s licensing department scrambled to prepare Crockett caps and paraphernalia, and by the time the shows were rerun later that season—and a feature-length version of the program played in theaters the following year—there were plenty of Davy Crockett toys, games, and products on the shelves. (Not long ago, Fess donated his original coonskin cap ensemble to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.)

Fess (strumming a Davy Crockett guitar) and Walt Disney, wearing some sort of headdress, pose with Governor Frank Clement of Tennessee, Davy’s fabled home state, on the eve of the Davy Crockett feature film’s release in June of 1955

Parker made several feature films for Disney, including Westward Ho! The Wagons, the underappreciated The Great Locomotive Chase, and the unforgettable Old Yeller. But his career, and his personal fortune, blossomed when he produced his own TV series, Daniel Boone, in the 1960s, and made a series of canny investments, including a great deal of real estate, mostly in Santa Barbara county. Eventually he opened a hotel in Santa Barbara and an inn in Los Olivos, along with his winery and its visitor center. (The roses that line the fence surrounding the property, Fess proudly told me, were planted by his wife Marcy.)

After we finished our interview, he invited my wife and me to stay for lunch, which was served on the shady veranda of his winery. Then he gave us a personal tour of the property, explaining how, as a total novice, he became involved in the wine business, and how his son Eli studied to become a vintner. Having this as a family operation gave him great pride, and while he wasn’t one to live in the past, he recognized that everything stemmed from the worldwide fame he achieved as Davy Crockett. That’s why, if you visit the Fess Parker Winery and purchase some of his (quite delicious) wines, you can also buy a unique accessory: a miniature coonskin cap to slide over the bottle.

And if you really want to take a measure of the man, read this message he posted on his website not long ago: “Some of you may have surmised that the last year or so have been a little rough on me healthwise. Even as I write this, I happen to be in the very capable hands of the team at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital in Santa Barbara. I can assure you that I am in no great danger; in fact, I haven’t felt as good as I do today in quite some time. I appreciate your e-mails and letters very much…thank you for taking the time to write.

“As a bonafide octogenarian I can tell you that with each passing day your family will become more and more important to you. Work at those relationships and make the time to spend time with those you love. I can assure you that you won’t be sorry.”

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June 2024