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Fess Parker, 85

Fess Parker, TV's Davy Crockett, dies at 85

Fess Parker achieved rock-star status playing Davy Crockett on TV in the 1950s, and the show prompted a national coonskin-cap craze.
Fess Parker achieved rock-star status playing Davy Crockett on TV in the 1950s, and the show prompted a national coonskin-cap craze. (Copyright Walt Disney Productions)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

Fess Parker, 85, who launched a nationwide craze of coonskin caps and toy rifles in the mid-1950s with his TV portrayal of rugged frontiersman Davy Crockett, and later starred as Daniel Boone in another TV buckskin drama, died March 18 at his home near Santa Barbara, Calif., where he had been a successful winemaker and real estate developer. The cause of death was not reported.

Mr. Parker had acted in a few westerns and TV shows when Walt Disney put the 6-foot-6 Texan in the title role of Davy Crockett for a series of three one-hour episodes that appeared in late 1954 and early 1955 on ABC's "Disneyland" program. Mr. Parker and his sidekick, played by Buddy Ebsen, rafted down rivers, foraged in the woods, battled Indians and ended up in a fateful encounter at the Alamo.

The programs were an instant hit, prompting millions of children to buy coonskin caps, buckskin outfits, moccasins, guitars, lunch pails and "Old Betsy" rifles. At the peak of the craze, the price of raccoon fur shot from 25 cents a pound to $8. On tour, Mr. Parker was besieged by thousands of fans clamoring to get a glimpse of the rangy, rough-hewn star.

"I will immodestly tell you," Mr. Parker told the Los Angeles Times in 2002, "it was bigger than anything, ever, including the Beatles and Elvis."

The show's theme song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," spent three months as the country's No. 1 pop hit. Seemingly every child in America knew its opening verse:

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee

The greenest state in the land of the free

Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree

Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three

Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier

The show's runaway success took everyone by surprise, including Disney.

"By the time the first show finally got on the air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo," said Walt Disney, as quoted in Leonard Maltin's "The Disney Films." "It became one of the biggest overnight hits in TV history, and there we were with just three films and a dead hero."


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