Written by Dick Polman. Originally published on Obit-Mag.com.
It’s surely the dream of every red-blooded American to be catapulted from obscurity to celebrity, to one day knock on the right door and see it swing ajar to reveal a lifetime’s bounty of riches. “Dream on,” you’re probably scoffing, and with good reason. Yet this is precisely what happened, back in the nascent era of television, to a lanky young actor down on his luck by the name of Fess Parker.
Parker didn’t need to go to Vegas to change his fortune. In December 1954, chance and circumstance combined to alter his situation – and the entire arc of his life. He was a 29-year-old bit player on the verge of quitting Hollywood; the next minute, or so it seemed, he was our first TV-marketed cultural phenomenon, the iconic embodiment of all-American virtue, an object of mass hysteria.
Dumb luck, in various incarnations, transformed Parker into Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier” – or, as I used to sing, “king of the wild frum-tier.” I was four at the time, and my botching of the lyrics was undoubtedly replicated by fellow baby boomers, the first generation to be nurtured on the sounds and images from that magic box.
Parker himself would remark, years later, that his brief ubiquity “was bigger than anything, ever, including The Beatles and Elvis.” At the very least, he did come first. And all the blessings came his way with no warning. We should all have such a triumph.
For starters, he had given himself 36 months to succeed as an actor, at which point if he had failed, he would return to Texas from whence he came. He was toiling in his 36th and final month when Walt Disney happened to spot him in a horror film called Them! Disney was screening it because he thought that the star, James Arness, might make a good Davy Crockett – only to decide that the rangy guy with the drawl, who battled the giant ants in only one scene, seemed to have that certain something.
The film critic Leonard Maltin once said that “timing in life is everything.” Disney had just launched a new TV show, entitled Disneyland, on the fledgling ABC network, and he was in dire need of content. He told his creative staff to craft some stories about American heroes. They focused on Crockett – a true-life Tennessee frontiersman and congressman who died in 1836 at the Alamo – only because they were up against a deadline and had to pick somebody.
Disney wasn’t wild about the choice or the Crockett story lines (“Yeah,” he reportedly told the staff, “but what does he do?”), but he signed off, albeit reluctantly, to shoot three 60-minute installments on location in Tennessee – in essence creating the first television miniseries. But that soon triggered a crisis. When the crew members got back to Hollywood, Disney discovered that they hadn’t shot enough footage for the three segments. From Parker’s perspective, the solution was yet another godsend.
Disney decided to pad out the hour by starting each show with the original storyboards of Crockett derring-do, and scoring the sequence with a snappy theme song. The studio composer cranked the tune out quickly, as was common in those days. The multi-stanza song began, “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee/ Greenest state in the land of the free,” and seemingly overnight, the ditty became the soundtrack for Davy-mania.
It was a perfect storm. The song set the mood for a TV series that attracted an audience of 40 million people; in the pre-cable era of limited choices, that was one of every four viewers nationwide. And the series, brief as it was, triggered a commerce bonanza (coonskin caps, Crockett blankets, sleds, stools, swing sets, sandboxes, toy rifles, bicycles, you name it) precisely at a time when Madison Avenue was zeroing in on the burgeoning generation of child consumers.
This was a market like no other, driven by television imagery. A prominent advertising consultant named Eugene Gilbert advised his business clients this way: “It is not to be denied that a parent subjected to requests from a youngster, who thinks he is in dire need of an item witnessed on television, may find it easier to ‘give in’ rather than dispute rationally with a highly emotionalized child.”
A lot of parents did give in; by one conservative estimate, the Crockett merchandise rang up $800 million in current dollars. And it made Fess Parker rich.
“No young man has ever had a greater share of good fortune,” he wrote Disney. He got that right, thanks again to another happy fluke. Under the terms of his contract, he received a 10 percent royalty on all Crockett spinoff products. At the time he signed, the Disney people dismissed that provision as meaningless boilerplate, because, after all, nobody envisioned a merchandising boom – since there had never been one before.
But the frenzy wasn’t just about the kids. Grownups mobbed Parker everywhere. During a Disney-sponsored personal appearance tour in 1955, he would land at an airport and find 20,000 people waiting for a glimpse of him. He was written up by Time magazine (“Davy Crockett is the epitome of a man who can lick any problem with his wits and his own two hands”). He went to Capitol Hill that year, met all the big shots, and sparked pandemonium at a luncheon.
His physique helped explain the aura – he was long and lean, just like Davy’s flintlock rifle – but he was shrewd enough to diagnose what he called America’s “hero hunger.” We were locked in a twilight struggle with the Soviets, and Parker’s character was strong, brave, wily, honest and populist – everything that we liked most about our national character – or how we imagined ourselves to be.
And then it was over; Americans soon embraced other novelties. By 1956, Elvis was number one on the charts and Parker was back on earth as a Disney contract player. He never had the serious film career of his dreams (he had wanted to play opposite Marilyn Monroe), and even a subsequent TV stint, as frontiersman Daniel Boone, failed to rekindle the flame.
But here’s the last chapter in this good luck story: Parker took his Davy bounty and invested very, very well – in California real estate, and, most famously, in the wine business. The Fess Parker Winery & Vineyards survives him, as does fessparker.com, and it’s surely fitting that the boomers who as kids wore his coonskins can now pony up $540 for a case of his pinot noir.
We thrilled to his adventures, now we can drink to his passing. And somehow the cycle is complete.