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People Top 5
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- January 11, 1988
- Vol. 29
- No. 1
He Died as Davy Crockett at the Alamo, but Actor Fess Parker Lives Oh as a California Hotel Baron
"I've walked around for 30 years in a warm glow from people enjoying and remembering the Davy Crockett series," Parker says later. "Anywhere in the country I go, from Maine all the way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca up in Washington, that good feeling is there."
There was a time when that feeling amounted to international hysteria. Plucked from obscurity in 1954 by Walt Disney to play the lead in a TV version of the Crockett legend, Parker eventually starred in five hour-long television dramas that were later repackaged as a pair of successful movies. These five shows became an early television phenomenon—and made Parker a superstar. The TV Crocketts were watched by millions and demonstrated the still-fledgling medium's power to entertain—and sell. Merchandising of coonskin caps and Old Betsy toy rifles made Parker, who received 10 percent of the profits, a millionaire.
At the height of the craze in 1955, Parker says, "I found myself being asked for autographs by senators, generals and admirals who queued up in a long line in front of the dais at a dinner in Washington to meet me. I sat there in my coonskin cap and buckskins almost dumbfounded. The pace over a two-year period—sometimes I'd meet 3,000 children in one day of public appearances—was like being on an almost-out-of-control roller coaster without a safety bar. In England the crowds outside a department store got so large the people broke through the front windows. I was often terrified."
The son of a Texas tax assessor, Parker graduated from the University of Texas and served on a World War II minesweeper before moving to Hollywood. In 1954 he had a small part alongside fellow future TV star James Arness in Them!, a movie about an army of giant mutant ants. Disney saw the antsploitation film and signed the towering Parker to play Crockett.
"Walt," Parker says, "was a wonderful guy." But the relationship with Disney soured with the end of the Crockett craze. (Says Parker: "Not long ago I wrote a sequel to Davy Crockett based on what might have happened if he hadn't died at the Alamo. But the Disney people were cool to that, cool to a sequel to Old Yeller [a 1957 film starring Parker], cool, really, to doing just about anything with me.")
The lead in the series Daniel Boone kept Parker on TV in the '60s, but his movie career stalled after a string of mostly dreary features that included The Jayhawkers and Westward Ho, the Wagons. He made his last film, Climb an Angry Mountain, in 1972. "I'd always hoped for a career like those of Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne," Parker says. "But it didn't turn out that way." Nor did he lead the Hollywood life: In 1958 the former frontiersman set out for Santa Barbara, where he and his wife, Marcy, have lived ever since. "We didn't want to raise our children in the Hollywood-Beverly Hills environment," says Marcy, 58, of Fess Elijah III, now 26, and daughter Ashley, 23. "We were a family that always ate dinner together."
Having invested his Crockett profits wisely, Parker turned full time to real estate development, buying and selling three mobile-home parks and six houses in the Santa Barbara area, as well as large tracts of land in Santa Clara and Boone County, Ky., where his hopes to develop a theme park based on the Boone and Crockett legends fell through. Last July, after a decade of battling Santa Barbara city fathers committed to conservation and growth restriction, he opened his $50 million Fess Parker Red Lion Resort Hotel. A man who likes a challenge, he says that last year he considered running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Alan Cranston. "I thought I could win," says Parker, a conservative who admires the success of another well-known actor-turned-Republican politician. "But I didn't want to be away from my family more than I was."
Nor is he tempted to test his power at the box office. "I got called to do a cameo role in a remake of Red River," he says. "I told the young lady that for most of 20 years I was the No. 1 man, so thanks, but no thanks."
For fans with coonskin caps in the closet, Parker is still premier. And the fact that they will always view him as Davy Crockett—born on a mountain-top, defender of the Alamo—means a lot to the latter-day land developer. "I've come to appreciate," he says, "that people recognize me and remember me."
- Dan Knapp.
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