Fess Parker, a UT history alumnus best known for his roles as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, died Thursday (March 18). He was 85. The following story, “Playing the Hero,” appeared in The Alcalde‘s July/August 2003 issue.
When most people think of Davy Crockett (or Daniel Boone), they picture Fess Parker circa 1960. On a recent trip back to Austin, the Texas ex reflected on his unusual, iconic life.
Fess Parker makes grown men cry. Why? “They’ve just got this in their mind. It’s part of their childhood, and when they see me, it brings it back up.”
Parker, B.A. ’50, became an instant celebrity when the film “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” debuted in 1955. With his coonskin hat, he toured 14 foreign countries and 42 cities. What wasn’t to love, especially for the little boys: a sort of mall Santa with a dead critter on his head who came packing serious heat in the form of a long rifle named “Old Betsy.”
In the ’60s, most of the television performers would film all week and then work all weekend. “So I worked from Riverton, Wash., to Kissimmee, Fla., and the Minnesota State Fair to Kansas City.” He’d start the morning with an interview, then go to a hospital or nursing home. “Then at 11 o’clock, I’d go to a department store and shake hands with about 2,000 kids in an hour. Then I’d go to lunch at the Rotary Club with the mayor and other dignitaries.” In the British Isles, he would always be escorted by the lord high mayor.
We are sitting in the coffee shop of the Driskill Hotel one March afternoon. “I was a Pi Kappa Alpha, so I used to come to all these hotels,” he gestures up and down Sixth Street. Parker, who now lives near Santa Barbara, is in Austin for a special honor. This morning he was awarded at the Capitol with the Texas Medal of Arts. Unlike his on-screen alter egos, who were “grizzly as a b’ar, an’ twice as strong,” Parker is debonair, soft-spoken, cerebral and articulate. Who’d have thought someone who continually typecast himself as a leathery frontiersman would sprinkle his conversation with words like “confluence,” “capricious” and “ennui”?
Back to his emotional fans, he explains that he’s a reminder of their innocence in America, individually and collectively. And between 1955 and 1970, when he retired his frontiersman role, by then as Daniel Boone, there was a lot of innocence that had been lost. “I made a couple of trips to Vietnam — in ’68 and again in ’70 — and these were the same little kids that I was shaking hands with in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and I felt so bad that this was what they inherited.”
“Too large for the stage”
Nowadays, he still does radio shows. And those little boys have kept on aging. “I had a fellow call in on the radio who was 60 years old. I never think of these little children that I knew as 60, but they are!” laughs Parker, now 78, and still impressive: 6’5″ and broad-shouldered with a full head of white hair and smiling Irish eyes. He had a grandfather who was 6’6″. “They’re all just old, long-boned hill people,” he muses.
His height was the subject of one of the most important criticisms he ever got. It was from the director of one of his early stage plays, “She said to me one time, ‘You’re simply too large for the stage.’ And I thought about that. So I decided I would go to film.” When he got there, he found himself in good company: John Wayne, Clint Walker, Jim Arness, who was 6’8″, Chuck Connors — “All these guys were my size. I wasn’t unusual.”
World War II broke out, and Parker’s height prevented him from entering Navy flight school. Then he tried for aviation radio gunners school in the Navy. “They threw me out because I was too big. They said, ‘You’ll never get inside the cockpit.'” But because he had gotten Morse code training, he was shipped off to the Marines in Oceanside, Calif., where he trained for beach landings carrying a 50-pound field radio. “We were all just a bunch of kids, happy Jacks,” he remembered. One day, commanders called the group together and split them into two groups. The other group went to Iwo Jima. “They lost 5,000 people just getting off the beach,” he remembers. “I assume someone had said, ‘That guy’s too big.’ I was fortunate all the way through.”
They finally did ship Parker out. “I was in the middle of the Pacific when they dropped the bomb.” He went on to the Philippines and crewed on a wooden mine-sweeper charged with cleaning up after the Japanese. “From September ’45 to March ’46, it was just like plowing.”
He survived the war but was nearly killed when he returned home. In 1946, he was driving with his girlfriend in a Model T down an Abilene highway when a drunk driver bumped him from behind, then “pulled up and said a few choice words. I had a little bit of a headache — I had seen a double feature, and I just lost my temper. So I followed the guy. I saw him turn into his house.”
Parker walked up to his car, and they exchanged words again. What he didn’t know was that the driver, a grocery store butcher, was already palming a large knife. Before Parker knew what had happened, the man had stabbed him in the side of the neck, severing 20 veins. The blade had gone under his jawbone, and when Parker wheeled around, the blade had broken. Parker applied pressure and local doctors patched him up the best they could. But today, he carries a deep gouge behind his left jaw, partly hidden by his hair.
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