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March 18, 2010

Fess Parker, TV's Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, Dies

The iconic Western star, who went on to a successful career in real estate and winemaking, was 85.

Fess Parker, the actor who became famous for his television roles as American frontier icons Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, died of natural causes at his home in California’s Santa Ynez Valley on March 18, 2010. He was 85.

Standing six feet, six inches tall, Parker cut an imposing figure as Crockett, a role he originated in 1954 as part of the Disneyland TV show. The rapid popularity the show sparked a craze for Crockett’s signature coonskin cap. Other merchandising included lunchboxes, rifles, buskin shirts, and more — and the theme song became a No. 1 hit record for singer Bill Hayes. Parker also recorded a version of the song, which reached No. 5.

The TV show became such a hit that Disney turned the first three episodes into a feature film, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, in 1955.

For his work on the show, Parker received a Primetime Emmy nomination for Most Outstanding New Personality.

Faithful to history, Crockett died in the third episode, Davy Crockett at the Alamo, where the real-life Crockett died in 1836 at age 49. But by popular demand, Disney brought back the Crockett character for a portion of the 1955-56 season.

When the show wound down, Parker’s career slowed for a period, but revved up again in 1964 with the debut of the adventure series Daniel Boone, which lasted until 1970.

When Daniel Boone ended, Parker stepped back from show business for the most part. He appeared in the occasional guest role, but devoted much of his time to real estate and, later, winemaking.

His many properties included Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa in Los Olivos and Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort Santa Barbara. He also established an awrd-winning winery in California’s Central Coast.

He pursued his real estate ventures with his wife, Marcella, whom he married in 1960.

He was born Fess Elisha Parker, Jr., on August 16, 1924, in Fort Worth, Texas. He played football at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, but his athletic career was cut short in 1946, when he experienced serious knife injuries during a road-rage assault.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, he was discovered by actor Adolphe Menjou, when Menjou was a guest artist at the University of Texas. He urged Parker to go to Hollywood and introduced the young performer to his agent.

Parker made his movie debut in the 1952 release Springfield Rifle, and went on to appear in No Room for the Groom, The Kid From Left Field, Them!, The Great Locomotive Chase, Westward Ho, the Wagons!, Old Yeller and The Light in the Forest.

In addition to his lead roles in Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, his other television work included Playhouse 90, General Electric Theater, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He also appeared in the 1950s series Annie Oakley and Death Valley Days.

According to news reports, his passing occurred on the 84th birthday of his wife, who survives him along with a son, a daughter, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Parker had the distinction of being interviewed by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation’s Archive of American Television. During the two-and-a-half-hour interview, conducted by Don Carleton on July 24, 2000, at Parker's inn in Los Olivos, California, Parker talked about his childhood in Texas and his eventual journey to Hollywood after visiting there during his military service in World War II. He discussed his early roles in filmed westerns and his early television roles, including Dragnet and Annie Oakley. In 1954, he was hired by Disney to play the lead in Davy Crockett, a limited series. The program was so popular, and spawned such a merchandising craze, that Parker’s Crockett was brought back for two more limited series. After the series ended, Parker worked on many other series as a guest star, before launching into the short-lived 1962 series, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In 1964, Parker triumphed as the lead in (and occasional director of) the series, Daniel Boone, which ran for six years. With his success with Daniel Boone, Parker semi-retired and acquired real estate, resorts and wineries.

The entire seven-part interview is available online here.

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