Friday, March 19, 2010

Fess Parker Was a Man, Was Big Man

Television icons are a dying breed these days. Earlier this week Peter Graves left us, and now we hear of the death of Fess Parker, one of TV's most reliable heroes, an actor whose fame came from portraying some of America's brawniest historical characters with two-fisted aplomb.

Fess Parker started out in Hollywood at the beginning of the 1950s in an assortment of small roles in film and TV. Walt Disney, looking for a he-man to star as pioneer soldier and adventurer Davy Crockett in an upcoming project, spotted Parker in a small role in the giant ant movie Them! (1954), and signed him up. He starred in several incredibly popular segments of the Disneyland weekly series as Crockett in 1955 (with Buddy Ebsen as his sidekick), creating a craze for coonskin caps and making him the idol of youngsters all over the country, and beyond.

Disney compiled some of the episodes into theatrical releases, as seen here. (This one will possibly be a revelation of sort for visitors to Disneyland who always wondered what the heck the Mike Fink Keel Boats were all about!)

Parker also was an accomplished singer whose rendition of the Crockett theme song sold plenty of records in the series' heyday. In this amusing clip he sings "Old Betsy" with Ebsen on the Disneyland episode commemorating the opening of Disneyland.

Just as 1950s childhood idol George "Superman" Reeves found it hard to break away from his kiddie-fueled fame, so did Parker find it difficult to recreate his Crockett-mania in other roles after Disney stopped making the series. He kept busy with many roles in film and television, including a short-lived TV version of the James Stewart classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the 1962 season, a really great casting fit that somehow didn't work well enough for a second season.

Finally in 1964 Fess Parker met up with another frontier character who was larger-than-life enough to fit Parker's qualifications. NBC's Daniel Boone ran for six successful seasons, and armed with a catchy theme song that most of us can still easily recall today, it captured the imagination of Americans and titillated their appreciation for history. The series co-starred the lovely Patricia Blair as Boone's wife Rebecca, young Darby Hinton as his son Israel, and of course singer Ed Ames as Boone's Native America friend Mingo (in the first four seasons), an unlikely and un-PC bit of casting that nevertheless was a key component in the show's early success.

Daniel Boone went off network in 1970, but of course was a staple in syndication for many years and gathered new fans everywhere it ran. (Check out this excellent Daniel Boone fansite for more info on the series.) Parker tried his hand at a sitcom in 1974, a kind of "My Three Daughters" idea, but it didn't take. Felicitously, Parker had a wonderful second career for the past couple of decades as a successful winemaker with his own Santa Ynez, California winery, a satisfying change of profession that made his transition away from Hollywood a graceful one.

Let's hope that Mr. Parker's passing brings his Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone television work back into the spotlight, where it belongs. (Not to sound like an old lady, but I can't help thinking that if a few more kids watched Boone and his family having their frontier adventures, maybe they wouldn't need to watch so much of that damned anime stuff. You know's impossible not to sound like an old lady and make a statement like that, isn't it? Oh, well.)

Fess Parker was an important part of TV history, and The Flaming Nose salutes his contribution to the medium and offers our condolences to his family and friends. And to his fans, naturally... (We highly recommend the wonderful Fess Parker article on the always fascinating TV Party website.)

Here's another cute clip, from 1978, on a special honoring the 25th Anniversary of the Disney TV show, with Parker and Ebsen singing and dancing. Very sweet!)

Fess Parker, 1924 - 2010.


Jane said...

This post about Fess Parker is absolutely superb. One of the best Nosetalgia articles ever. I was particularly fascinated by the relationship he had with Disney. Excellent, excellent Ms. L. Can't remember when I enjoyed a post more. And I am delighted to hear that instead of imploding like so many early TV stars (Reeves comes to mind), Mr. Parker had a lovely second life as a winemaker in beautiful Santa Inez. I have a warm glow from reading this awesome post.

Jane said...

Oh...and one more thing. Most old ladies would not even know what anime is, but less be able to target it as a scourge for the young viewers. Bravo for being "au courant".

Judith said...

Excellent tribute. These days are gone.

Anonymous said...


Jane said...

What in tarnation does the last comment say? :)