Fess Parker

Active - 1952 - 1991  |   Born - Aug 16, 1924 in Fort Worth, Texas, United States  |   Died - Mar 18, 2010 in Los Olivos, CA  |   Genres - Western, Adventure, Drama, Action, Comedy

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An actor indelibly associated with classic Americana given his iconic portrayals of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, tall, tousle-haired Fess Parker began life in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in nearby San Angelo, where his parents farmed peanuts and watermelons, and raised cattle. Following service in the military during WWII (where he participated in "clean-up" operations in the Philippines), Parker returned to the United States, and attended both the University of Texas and the University of California. He soon discovered a flair for acting and hit the stage in the touring company of Mister Roberts, then entered films in 1952, enjoying his first sizeable role -- a Southern-accented ballplayer -- in The Kid From Left Field (1953). It was his one-scene bit as a terrified witness to an "alien close encounter" in the 1954 horror classic Them! (1954), however, that brought Parker to the attention of Walt Disney, and somewhat ironically. Disney had considered casting a major Hollywood star as Crockett (such as Glenn Ford or Sterling Hayden), but gave up on this idea and, it is said, briefly considered future Gunsmoke headliner James Arness. Walt went to see the Arness-starrer Them! for this reason, and passed on Arness for Crockett but felt instantly convinced (and supposedly shouted out "There's our Crockett!") when Parker appeared on the screen.

The actor began by portraying Crockett on ABC's Disneyland television series, and the rest is history: during the period of 1954-6, Davy Crockett mania swept through the country, first with the smash single "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," then with a blizzard of Crockett-themed merchandise aimed squarely at small children - everything from lunchboxes, to action figures, to the quintessential Davy Crockett coonskin cap.

Disney and Parker parlayed the Crockett success into features in 1955 and 1956, but two years after the Crockett popularity began, it fizzled. Parker remained on the Disney lot until 1958, starring in such films as The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1957), Old Yeller (1957), and Light in the Forest (1958). His relationship with Disney more or less ended, however, when he refused to appear in the studio's Native American drama Tonka (1958) (a revisionist version of Custer's Last Stand) opposite Sal Mineo - and was promptly suspended for doing so.

His film stardom leveling off after 1959, Parker started a family by marrying Marcella Rinehart in 1960, with whom he had numerous children and grandchildren. He began a television comeback in 1962 with an indifferent sitcom version of the old Capra drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1962). He was more successful, though, with his five-year tenure in the title role of the weekly NBC adventure-fest Daniel Boone, which lasted six seasons (1964-70), running consistently on Thursday nights from 7:30-8:30pm; at its peak, the program's popularity even topped that of Crockett. Parker signed for his last dramatic role in the 1972 Climb An Angry Mountain.

In the years that followed, Parker bowed out of the limelight, and entered an entirely unrelated field: that of real estate. He became an entrepreneur in the mid-1970s, and built his holdings into a small yet phenomenally lucrative empire that included a mobile home park, luxury hotels, and a sprawling vineyard with a gift shop that sold Crockett memorabilia.

Parker died of natural causes at the age of 85 in March 2010, at his home in California's Santa Ynez Valley.

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Factsheet

  • Enlisted in the Navy during WWII and became a radioman when his 6' 6" stature precluded him from being a pilot or gunner.
  • Before portraying iconic historical figures, earned a history degree from the University of Texas; while there, he was discovered and introduced to an agent by actor Adolphe Menjou.
  • Began his acting career with the touring company of Mister Roberts; his big break came when Walt Disney noticed him in a bit role in the 1954 sci-fi film Them! and cast him as Davy Crockett.
  • His stint as Crockett was for three episodes but proved so popular that feature films followed and a merchandising boom ensued: millions of coonskin caps flew off the shelves, several versions of the song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" hit the charts (including Parker's, at No. 5) and demand for his appearances skyrocketed.
  • Went on to portray frontier figure Daniel Boone for six seasons.
  • Became a real-estate developer and owner of an award-winning California winery (whose label sports a coonskin cap).
  • Was lauded as a Disney Legend in 1991; awarded the Medal of Arts by the Texas Cultural Trust Council in 2003; and in 2004 had his portrayal of Crockett immortalized on a window on Main Street in the Disneyland theme park.