Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Late Great Fess Parker

Fess Parker, the actor best known for playing frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, passed today at the age of 85.

Fess Parker was born in Fort Worth, Texas on August 15, 1924. He grew up on a farm outside San Angelo, Texas. During World War II Mr. Parker served in the United States during World War II. Following the war he attended the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated in 1950. It was while he in college that Mr. Parker developed an interest in acting. He moved to California in 1950 to pursue acting and got an agent not long after moving there. At the same time he enrolled at the University of California to pursue a masters in theatre history.

Fess Parker never did complete his master's degree, as his acting career soon got in the way. In 1950 he provided the voice for Leslie the Chauffeur in the classic film Harvey. In the summer of 1951 he was an extra with the national tour of Mister Roberts. In 1952 Mr. Parker had a small, uncredited role in No Room for the Groom. That same year he appeared in Untamed Frontier. The next few years saw him appear in small parts in such films as Springfield Rifle, Take Me to Town, The Kid From Left Field, Island in the Sky, Thunder over the Plains, the classic sci-fi movie Them, and The Bounty Hunter. He made his television debut on Dragnet and guest starred on Stories of the Century and Annie Oakley.

It would be Davy Crockett's small role in Them that would prove to be his big break. It was in 1954 that Walt Disney was looking for an actor to play Davy Crockett in a three part mini-series on his show Disneyland. Initially, Disney had been interested in James Arness (who would later become forever known as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke). When Disney watched Them for Arness's performance in the film, however, his attention was drawn by Fess Parker in a smaller role. Disney cast Fess Parker in the role of Davy Crockett, and when the three part mini-series aired on Disneyland in 1954, he was catapulted to stardom. The mini-series proved to be an outright phenomenon, with Davy Crockett merchandise flying off the shelves. Ultimately, it was so popular that Disney made two more Davy Crockett episodes, which aired in 1955.

Following the Davy Crockett mini-series, Fess Parker starred as another historical figure, Union spy James L. Andrews, in the film The Great Locomotive Chase, released in 1956. During the last part of the Fifties he starred in Westward Ho the Wagons, the classic Old Yeller, The Light in the Forest, The Hangman, and The Jayhawkers. He had a cameo as Davy Crockett in the Bob Hope film Alias Jesse James. He guest starred on Playhouse 90, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, and General Electric Theatre.

The Sixties saw Fess Parker appear in the television special Merman on Broadway in 1961 and guest star on Death Valley Days. In 1962 he appeared in the film Hell is for Heroes. For the 1962-1963 season Mr. Parker played the lead on the TV show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He guest starred in the shows Destry and Burke's Law in 1964. In 1963 Mr. Parker toured with Oklahoma. It was while he was on this tour that he found himself being asked for more autographs than usual. Mr. Parker soon learned that Disney had recently rerun the Davy Crockett miniseries, creating a new generation of fans.

Thinking to capitalise on Crockett's new popularity, Fess Parker approached Aaron Rosenberg about a new series featuring the frontiersman. When Mr. Parker asked Disney for the right to use the name, however, Disney turned him down. Realising as a historical figure Crockett was in the public domain, Mr. Parker and Rosenberg decided to go ahead with the series anyway. Unfortunately, both Lloyds of London and Fireman's Fund refused to insure them against lawsuits from Disney if they proceeded with the show. It was then that they decided instead to a show starring Fess Parker as another historical frontiersman, Daniel Boone.

Daniel Boone proved highly successful. It ran from 1964 to 1970, for a total of 159 episodes. While the show was still airing on NBC, Mr. Parker appeared in the movie Smoky in 1966. Following the show he appeared in the television Climb an Angry Mountain in 1972. In 1974 he made a pilot for a new series, The Fess Parker Show, but it did not sell. The Fess Parker Show would be Fess Parker's last acting job. He afterwards retired from acting to concentrate on his business interests. He eventually opened the Fess Parker Family Winery and Vineyard, producing a number of award winning wines.

Fess Parker's career was fairly limited. Indeed, he is best known for playing two frontiersmen, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. These two roles were characteristic of most of the roles in which Mr. Parker appeared, most of which were in frontier dramas and Westerns. That having been said, Mr. Parker played such roles very well, with a conviction few others actor would have had. And although he played only a few other sorts of parts, Mr. Parker always did well in them. Although best known as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, he was capable of much more.

As to myself, Fess Parker was of one of the first actors of whom I was aware. I grew up watching Daniel Boone religiously. Later in my childhood I discovered he played another frontiersman, Davy Crockett, in reruns on The Wonderful World of Disney. In both cases he played the sort of characters a boy could not help but admire--brave, strong, honest, honourable. As both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Fess Parker was very convincing. While I realise Mr. Parker was not a young man, I must confess that tonight I do find myself sad at his passing.


CarlyF said...

He is a childhood hero of mine! I watched the "Daniel Boone Show", every Thursday night. His passing, just makes my mortality more real!

Toby O'B said...

Nice tribute, Merc. Your site is required reading after any of these TV giants fade from the scene....