Fess Parker, the thesp who became famous for playing frontier legends Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and went on to become a successful real estate developer, died Thursday at his home near Los Olivos, Calif. He was 85.
Parker played the rugged folk hero in Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series, which aired in the mid-1950s as part of the “Disneyland” anthology series on ABC. Parker’s portrayal of the coonskin cap-wearing Western hero became an overnight sensation after the first installment, “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter,” aired in December 1954. Disney cashed in on robust sales of Crockett-themed merchandise, while Parker had a pop hit with his recording of the program’s theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Crockett’s image and memorabilia remain a prominent feature of the Frontierland area of the Disneyland theme park.
“Like many kids growing up in the ’50s, Davy Crockett was my first hero, and I had the coonskin cap to prove it,” said Disney prexy and CEO Bob Iger. “Fess Parker’s unforgettable, exciting and admirable performance as this American icon has remained with me all these years, as it has for his millions of fans around the world.”
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Parker was discovered while at the U. of Texas where he studied drama and played football. His first film was an uncredited role in 1950’s “Harvey.” He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s to study drama at USC. He made his stage debut in an local production of “Mister Roberts” in 1951.
Walt Disney picked Parker to play Davy Crockett after seeing him in sci-fi pic “Them!”
After the success of “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter,” Disney quickly turned out two more Crockett segs that aired in early 1955: “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress” and “Davy Crockett Goes to the Alamo.” Although the character was killed at the end of the “Alamo” seg, public demand for more led to the production of several more installments depicting Crockett’s early years, including “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race” and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.” Buddy Ebsen, future star of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Barnaby Jones,” co-starred in the series as Crockett’s trusted friend George Russel.
Parker was under contract to Paramount in the late 1950s and early ’60s, where he starred in “The Hangman” (1959), “The Jayhawkers” (1959) and “Hell Is for Heroes” (1962). His TV roles included guest shots on anthology series including “Playhouse 90,” “General Electric Theater,” “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” He also appeared in several segs of the 1950s series “Annie Oakley” and “Death Valley Days.”
He made other pics for Disney such as “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956), “Old Yeller” (1957) and “Smoky” (1966). Parker was honored by the Mouse House with its Disney Legend designation in 1991.
Parker tried to break out of his frontiersman mold by starring in the 1962 comedy “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where he played a freshman senator, but the ABC series only lasted one season. In 1964, he was back to familiar territory as the star of NBC’s “Daniel Boone,” which was a hit and ran until 1970.
He spoofed his own image with a guest shot as Davy Crockett in 1970 on “The Red Skelton Show.”
By the early ’70s, Parker left showbiz and devoted himself to the real estate biz in Santa Barbara, where he moved in 1960 and bought a prosperous mobile home park, eventually becoming a powerful landowner in the Santa Barbara area.
He built the lavish Fess Parker Double Tree Resort on 23 acres of prime beachfront property in the heart of Santa Barbara in 1986, though his expansion plans for the property at times caused friction with residents. The following year, he bought a 714-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley and turned his winemaking hobby into a commercial venture with the launch of Fess Parker’s Winery, which appeared in the film “Sideways.” He also owned Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa in Los Olivos.
Parker is survived by his wife of 50 years, Marcella, a son, a daughter, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson.
From Variety’s archives – these are the official studio biographies for Fess Parker, circa 1969, from Fox and Warner Bros.