The 1950s and 1960s introduced Americans to television and riveted audiences with tales of the frontier. One of the most noted actors of the era was Texan Fess Parker. He became one of the most popular actors of the time, giving life to legendary American figures such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in his portrayals.
Fess Elisha Parker, Jr., was born in Fort Worth in 1924. At a young age, his family moved to a farm outside San Angelo where he grew up. His childhood was largely uneventful, but this soon changed. When World War II erupted, he enlisted in the navy. He was too tall to become a pilot as he had hoped, and he eventually served as a radio operator in the Marines.
After his discharge from the service, he enrolled at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene in 1946 through the G.I. Bill. His interest in acting developed, and he appeared in a number of student plays. The next year, he transferred to the University of Texas where he majored in history. He earned a history degree from UT in 1950 and transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to study theater history. He quickly found work as an actor, albeit a small role. In what became his first film role, he had an uncredited appearance in the classic 1950 comedy Harvey as a limousine driver.
Parker appeared in various student plays at USC while working on his outside acting career. He would ultimately appear in 40 films and television shows. He appeared in several westerns and television shows in the early 1950s. One movie included a role in the science-fiction film Them! (1954) about a race of mutated, Texas-sized ants.
In 1954, the Walt Disney Company offered him a film contract and signed him to play the legendary Texas hero Davy Crockett in a series of one-hour televised features. He appeared in all seven episodes between 1954 and 1956, forever making Parker and Crockett synonymous with the coonskin cap. Just as television was capturing the imagination of American viewers, Fess Parker became a hero to countless children and families across the nation.
In 1957, he appeared in another Disney classic, Old Yeller, portraying the father of a young boy who found and befriended a yellow dog. Frustrated that the roles that Disney offered were all variations on a theme, Parker left in 1958 to find other roles. He found work in several movies, including westerns such as The Hangman (1959) and war movies such as Hell is for Heroes (1962). In 1962, he also starred in a short-lived series Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a television version of the classic 1939 film.
Shortly afterward, he won the role of another legendary frontier figure, this time playing famed Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone. The show lasted for six years on NBC. After Daniel Boone left the air in 1970, Parker had only two more screen appearances.
In spite of the many fans he had after his iconic roles playing Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, Parker grew frustrated with the few parts he was otherwise offered. After 1974, he largely retired from acting. He began a successful winery operation in California. His wines are known for having a coonskin cap on the labels, and his family still operates the company today.
Parker died quietly at his home in California in 2010, leaving behind his wife of 50 years, two children, and a generation of fans.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Bridges: Texan Fess Parker had huge impact on early TV, Hollywood