Fess Parker: Actor whose 1950s portrayal of Davy Crockett helped Disney gain a foothold in television

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The Independent Online

When Fess Parker donned a coonskin cap to play the frontiersman in the adventure series Davy Crockett he became one of the biggest stars on 1950s television. It was a triumph both for Parker and Walt Disney, who had made the groundbreaking move into television by a film company. Davy Crockett (1954-55) was launched as part of the anthology series Disneyland, with one of its strands titled "Frontierland" and Parker hooking viewers with stories that included brutal, hand-to-hand combat.

Davy Crockett merchandise earned Disney hundreds of thousands of dollars and when the programme's theme song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" became a No 1 single in the United States, younger viewers cemented the Crockett-mania by running around, singing: "Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier."

Although the adventures ran to only five one-hour episodes – the last two made as prequels – the popularity of Parker's Tennessee backwoods screen character who became the tragic hero of the Alamo was further exploited by editing them together into two cinema films, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (both 1955).

Parker was spotted for the role when Walt Disney had James Arness in mind for it and arranged a screening of that actor's sci-fi film Them! Once he saw the 6ft 6in Parker – playing a pilot thrown into an asylum after claiming his plane had been downed by giant flying insects – Disney screamed: "That's our Davy Crockett!"

The actor and his co-star, Buddy Ebsen, who played Crockett's sidekick, George Russel, went on promotional tours across the United States and more than a dozen other countries.

"Walt hadn't expected television to have the impact that it did," Parker recalled. "Then they decided that, if their merchandising programme was a log fire, they were just going to throw another log on – and that was me. They sent me all over the country."

A decade later, Parker metamorphosised into another coonskin cap-wearing frontier hero. He starred in 159 episodes of Daniel Boone (1964-70) and, as well as producing and directing some episodes, received 30 per cent of the profits. The stories, straddling the American Revolution, were set in Kentucky, where Boone lived with his family and encountered both friendly and hostile native Americans.

Seeking to gain 100 per cent of the profits, Parker left acting several years later to establish his own vineyards, hotels and restaurants.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1924, Parker served as a radio operator in the US Navy's Marine Corps at the end of the Second World War, then graduated in history from the University of Texas. He studied drama at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and made his professional stage debut as an extra in the play Mister Roberts (1951).

Parker was soon landing bit-parts in Western films such as Untamed Frontier (1952, starring Joseph Cotten), Springfield Rifle (1952, alongside Gary Cooper) and Thunder Over the Plains (1953, with Randolph Scott). He also appeared with John Wayne and James Arness in the plane-crash drama Island in the Sky (1953).

The actor had made his television debut in Dragnet (1954), but it was Davy Crockett that turned him into an overnight star. With it came a Disney contract and starring roles in films such as the Civil War drama The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), as leader of a group of Union soldiers going behind Confederate lines, and the family saga Westward Ho The Wagons! (1956).

But Parker complained that he was becoming typecast and was even more dissatisfied when Disney forbade him from appearing in The Searchers (starring John Wayne) and Bus Stop (with Marilyn Monroe) for other producers.

When Disney released him from his contract, he reprised the role of Davy Crockett in the film Alias Jesse James (1959) – as he did later on television in The Red Skelton Show (1970) – and was seen alongside Steve McQueen in Hell Is for Heroes (1962), but his film career never took off.

Parker returned to television to star as the unsophisticated senator in the sitcom Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1962-63), based on the director Frank Capra's 1939 film featuring James Stewart.

Following the success of Daniel Boone, Parker turned down the title role in the television series McCloud, which eventually starred Dennis Weaver as the New Mexico sheriff in New York. He finished his screen career with the sitcom pilot The Fess Parker Show (1974), which failed to become a series.

Parker then became a businessman, taking a share in a Santa Barbara mobile-home park, opening a waterfront resort there and establishing the Fess Parker Family Winery and Vineyards in Los Olivos, California.

Anthony Hayward

Fess Elisha Parker, actor: born Fort Worth, Texas 16 August 1924; married 1960 Marcella Rinehart (one son, one daughter); died Santa Ynez, California 18 March 2010.

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