Feature

Fess Parker

The actor who launched the Davy Crockett craze

Fess Parker
1924–2010

Fess Parker did more than embody the American frontiersman to the baby boom generation. He also had a hand in inventing pop-culture merchandising. His starring role in the Davy Crockett television series launched a craze for Davy Crockett memorabilia, including guitars, lunchboxes, bedspreads, and the coonskin caps that were a must-have for children growing up in the 1950s. “It was an explosion beyond anyone’s comprehension,” Parker said in a 1994 interview. “The power of television, which was still new, was demonstrated for the first time.”

Fess Elisha Parker Jr., a native of Fort Worth, played football and studied drama at the University of Texas, then moved to Hollywood in the early 1950s to study theater at the University of Southern California. He soon landed a few small movie roles, including an uncredited performance in Harvey. Walt Disney himself hired Parker to play Davy Crockett after seeing him in the science-fiction film Them!, said Daily Variety. Disney quickly churned out three Crockett adventures for ABC. “Although the character was killed at the end of Davy Crockett at the Alamo, public demand for more led to the production of several more installments depicting Crockett’s early years.”

In 1958, “determined to play modern roles,” Parker left Disney, said the Los Angeles Times. He spent four years at Paramount, landing few parts, before signing on to play the lead in ABC’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1962. The show was canceled after one season, but Parker soon helped launch a series based on another iconic American frontiersman, Daniel Boone. The show had a successful run from 1964 to 1970. After Daniel Boone was canceled, he dropped out of acting and took up a career in real estate, developing a mobile-home park and convention center in Santa Barbara, Calif., and opening a vineyard in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. He was popular with winery visitors, who often asked him to autograph the labels on his bottles, which were festooned with a tiny, sepia-toned image of a coonskin cap.

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