Hand color tinted photo of Fess Parker from the 1955 movie, Davy Crockett
Fess Elisha Parker, Jr. (August 16, 1924 – March 18, 2010) was an American film and television actor best known for his 1950s portrayals of Davy Crockett for Walt Disney and his late 1960s portrayals of Daniel Boone. He was also known as a wine maker and resort owner-operator.
Fess Parker was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up on a farm near San Angelo. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the latter part of World War II, hoping to become a pilot. He was turned down because he was 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m). He then tried to become a radioman gunner, but he was found too big to fit comfortably into the rear cockpit. He was finally transferred to the Marine Corps as a radio operator and shipped out for the South Pacific shortly before the atom bomb ended the war.
Discharged in 1946, he enrolled in the University of Texas on the GI Bill. He was stabbed in the chin by a drunken driver during a post-collision argument. He required many months to recover, and was unable to participate in sports as he had wished.
Parker graduated from the University of Texas in 1950 with a degree in history. He had been initiated into the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Having one year remaining on his GI Bill, he studied drama at the University of Southern California, working towards a master’s degree in theater history.
Parker began his show-business career by summer 1951 when he had a $32-a-week job as an extra in the play Mister Roberts, although he is credited with the voice of Leslie, the chauffeur, in the 1950 film Harvey. Within months, he was on location with a minor part in Untamed Frontier with Joseph Cotten and Shelley Winters.
Parker became a contract player with Warner Brothers appearing in small roles in several films such as Springfield Rifle (1952), Island in the Sky, The Bounty Hunter and Battle Cry. In 1954, he appeared as Grat Dalton in the Jim Davis western anthology Stories of the Century in the episode The Dalton Brothers.
According to Parker himself, when the Walt Disney Company was looking for an actor to play Davy Crockett, they originally considered James Arness for the title role. Parker had recently graduated to a contract weekly actor, but listened to his agent, so he appeared instead in a B movie called Them!, that required only one day’s work. He had a small scene in the movie, that of a pilot put into an insane asylum after claiming his plane had been downed by giant flying insects. Arness appeared in a larger role in the same film.
It was during a screening of this film that Walt Disney looked past Arness and discovered Parker. Disney was impressed by Parker’s portrayal of a man who was unswerving in his belief in what he saw despite the forces of authority against him. Parker was asked to drop by the Disney Studio. When he did, he brought his guitar, met Walt, sang a song, and then said his goodbye. A couple of weeks later he was told that he had been selected over Arness and several other actors considered for the role, including Buddy Ebsen who eventually played Crockett’s friend, George Russell.
Disney’s portrayal of Crockett in three episodes depicted his exploits as frontiersman, congressman, and tragic hero of the Alamo, in what has been called the first television miniseries, though the term had not yet been coined. Davy Crockett was a tremendous hit with children, and led to a merchandising frenzy for coonskin caps and all things Crockett.
Parker became a contract star for Disney appearing in many films such as The Great Locomotive Chase, Old Yeller, and Westward Ho, the Wagons! but complained they were all pretty much the same role. Disney refused to loan out Parker for roles outside of that persona, such as The Searchers and Bus Stop.
Parker made guest appearances on many television programs; and composed and sang music. He performed the occasional role of Tom Conrad, editor of the Diablo Courier in the syndicated western series, Annie Oakley (1954–1957), starring Gail Davis, Brad Johnson, and Jimmy Hawkins. In 1962, he starred in the title role of the TV series Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Parker took to the stage in 1963, in a traveling production of “Oklahoma!” as ‘Curly’. The movie roles he sought were elusive.
Parker’s Daniel Boone television series portraying another historic figure of America’s frontier days began filming in 1964. Over its six years (1964 to 1970) as one of the highest rated shows of its time, Parker was not only the star of the series but also the co-producer and director of five of its most popular episodes.
Turning down the title role of McCloud, Parker retired from the film industry in the 1970s, after a short-lived 1974 sitcom, The Fess Parker Show.
Fess Parker was nominated for best new personality Emmy in 1954, but lost to George Gobel. He was never nominated again, nor was his show Daniel Boone.
In 2003, Parker received the Texas Cultural Trust’s, “Texas Medal of Arts Award”, established only the year before.
For his work with Disney, Parker was honored in December 2004 with his own tribute window on a facade in the Frontierland section of Disneyland.
Fess Parker Winery
After his acting career, Parker devoted much of his time to operating his Fess Parker Family Winery and Vineyards in Los Olivos, California. The winery is owned and operated by Parker’s family, and has produced several different types of award-winning wines. Parker’s son, Eli, is President and Director of Winemaking & Vineyard Operations while daughter, Ashley, is Vice President of Marketing & Sales.
The Parker operation includes over 1,500 acres (610 ha) of vineyards, and a tasting room and visitor center along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. In addition to wine, the winery is known for selling coon skin caps and bottle toppers, inspired by Parker’s Crockett and Boone characters, and for appearing in the movie Sideways.
In a reminiscence of his acting days, Parkers’ wine labels have a logo of a golden coonskin cap.
Parker married Marcella Belle Rinehart on January 18, 1960. They had two children — Fess Elisha III and Ashley Allen Rinehart — along with 11 grandchildren and a great-grandson.
Parker died of natural causes according to a spokesperson, at his home in Santa Ynez, California, near the Fess Parker Winery on March 18, 2010.