Fess Parker may have traded his coonskin cap for a California winery, but to those of us of a certain vintage, he'll always be the King of the Wild Frontier.
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Davy Crockett may have been a hero, but Fess Parker is the real success story. As any baby boomer can tell you, Parker played the legendary frontiersman on Disney’s television series, Disneyland, in the mid-fifties and helped create a huge craze for coonskin caps and toy rifles. But Parker didn’t just play Davy; as far as millions of American kiddos were concerned, he was Davy.
In fact, he was even better. Sure, Crockett was a fierce fighter and a hell of a hunter, but he neglected his wife and kids and had an ego the size of Santa Anna’s army. The Disney version—like the actor himself—is a modest family man. And there’s no way the historical Davy could have held a tallow candle to Parker’s crinkly eyes, deep voice, and rangy build. Plus, Parker has something both the real and the reel Davy lacked: wealth, not only from his acting career but also from the vineyards, winery, and hotels he owns today in Santa Barbara, his longtime home. The 77-year-old Parker plays down his achievements as a developer and winemaker: “What else,” he asks with a rumbly laugh, “is an old, out-of-work actor gonna do?”
Though Parker worked steadily in movies and TV for two decades, his two-year stint as Davy defined his acting career. And his upbringing in Texas defined his portrayal of Davy. A native of Fort Worth, Parker grew up in San Angelo, where he played high school football. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he attended Abilene’s Hardin-Simmons University before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin; he graduated from UT in 1950, part of a class whose famous alumni include gossip columnist Liz Smith, director Robert Benton, and actress Jayne Mansfield. He then headed to Hollywood, where he quickly began winning parts in comedies, war films, and westerns.
But it was his minor role in the 1954 horror classic Them! that caught the eye of Walt Disney. Dressed in a bathrobe, Parker plays a misunderstood Texan who claims he’s seen ant-shaped flying saucers. He had physical presence and a nice comic touch, and Disney knew immediately that he had found his Davy Crockett. What Disney didn’t know then was that Parker was perfect for the role not just physically but culturally. He understood the Homeric nature of the Crockett legend and shifted easily into larger-than-life hero mode (his height—six foot six—helped). And only a deer could look more natural in buckskin.
Parker had a lot of fun in the role: He got to brandish weapons, ride horses, and wrestle (make that “wrassle”) humans and other dangerous critters. He easily delivered the kind of sanitized homily that was a hallmark of the Disney screenplay—punctuated with hillbilly vernacular like “not perzactly” and “I’m plumb flutterated.” Boys and girls listened up when Parker-as-Davy held forth on everything from honesty (“Soft soap ain’t good for nothin’ but washin’ dirty hands”) to patriotism (“We got a responsibility to this strappin’, fun-lovin’, britches-bustin’ young b’ar cub of a country”). Then thirty years old, Parker visited 42 cities and 13 countries to fan Davy fever—an “absolute roaring phenomenon,” as he once called it. Today Davy memorabilia goes for big bucks; for example, comic books with Parker on the cover fetch as much as $200.
Walt Disney capitalized on Parker’s face and fame in four movies, notably Old Yeller (1957), for which he received top billing despite being onscreen for less than ten minutes. (Coincidentally, Parker’s parents hailed from Mason County, the home turf of Old Yeller author Fred Gipson.) The actor’s non-Disney engagements included a six-year run as another legendary American hero, Daniel Boone, in the TV series of the same name. He also worked as a director, composer, and recording artist (he released one version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”) but ultimately concluded that he was irrevocably typecast. In the early seventies he decided to quit show biz, in part because of his family: He had married singer Marcella Rinehart in 1960, and they were raising two children, Eli and Ashley. “When I was a bachelor, I didn’t care much about how I got along,” Parker says. “But when the children came, I got serious about the future.”
During the seventies Parker showed the business savvy of a man who was paying close attention as Walt Disney built a zillion-dollar entertainment empire. He and his wife set about buying up land, including 56 acres of Santa Barbara beachfront, a portion of which the family recently donated to the city to be used as a public park. In 1986, after much bureaucratic hoop-jumping—“Santa Barbara is an extremely difficult place to build anything because of the no-growthers and environmentalists”—he opened his first hotel. Now called Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort, the 360-room complex serves, according to its Web site, as “your own private Santa Barbara.” Parker also started growing grapes on 718 acres near Los Olivos and in 1989 launched the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard; elegant names such as Viognier and Syrah share space on the label with a drawing of a coonskin cap. Nearby is Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa, a small, sumptuous retreat. “We’re trying to make it a world-class establishment,” he says, “a really quality escape from the big city. I’m tickled about this: Sir Anthony Hopkins dropped in recently. We’ve had Barbra Streisand, Roseanne, Daryl Hannah, Cheryl Ladd, David Crosby.” One regular is Ed Ames, who played Parker’s Indian sidekick, Mingo, on Daniel Boone. The suites go for $600 a day, a figure that, despite having lived in California for four decades, Parker still finds impressive: “When I moved to Santa Barbara, a hotel room set you back forty-five dollars a night.” Parker’s wife supplies interior-design advice as well as recipes for the restaurant and Web site (fessparker.com); his son is the resident winemaker. Just this spring the City of Santa Barbara finally okayed Parker’s plans for a second beachfront hotel. But he’d rather talk about another venture, the Fess Parker Production Center in Lompoc, a grape-processing facility. “There are twenty-four thousand acres of vineyards in Santa Barbara County,” he says. “We have big labels like Mondavi, Beringer, Sutter Home, and Kendall-Jackson as well as fifty-five or so smaller wineries like ours. But we have more grapes to crush than places to crush them.”
In his spare time—what there is of it—Parker visits old friends like Buddy Ebsen, who played Davy’s sidekick, Georgie Russel (“He’s ninety-three, and he’s written a novel”). He’s debating where to donate some of his Davy-days memorabilia, including a rifle presented to him in 1955 by the National Rifle Association (“It was a hundred years old then”). Miscellaneous other treasures include gifts from the many Republican candidates whose campaigns he has quietly contributed to through the years. “I’m looking right now at a pair of Lincoln Memorial bookends John Tower gave me after his first Senate campaign,” he says. “And I want to say, I’m very proud of having another Texas president.” Parker regularly receives fan mail and got a kick out of a recent gift from a German admirer—a brand-new CD, produced in Hamburg, of folk ballads that he recorded for RCA Victor in 1964 but that never became an LP. “It’s called Fess Parker: Great American Heroes,” he says. “The songs are about Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Andrew Jackson, Jim Bowie, and lots more, backed by the Norman Luboff Choir and some orchestra RCA put together. I somehow manage to make every song sound the same.”
Certainly Parker’s singing falls short of his other endeavors. Some might call his series of successes the result of manifest destiny, but Parker believes otherwise. “It just shows,” he says, “what ignorance plus optimism plus persistence can do.”