It’s that Davy Crockett grin. Fess Parker first flashed it 33 years ago, and the whole world lay at his feet like some star-struck grizzly b’ar. Now 63 and still standing a heroic 6’6″, the silver-haired actor-turned-real estate developer no sooner strides into the Fess Parker Red Lion Resort Hotel in Santa Barbara than he’s approached by a young woman who was yet to be born when Parker was king of the 1950s TV frontier. Yet as she asks him to pose for a photo, she’s suddenly intimidated by the size of the legend and the man. “Could you?” she sputters. “Please?” Parker puts her at ease with the grin. “Glad to,” he says.
“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.”