LOS ANGELES – Fess Parker, a baby-boomer idol in the 1950s who launched a craze for coonskin caps as television’s Davy Crockett, died Thursday of natural causes. He was 85.
Family spokeswoman Sao Anash said Parker, who was also TV’s Daniel Boone and later a major California winemaker and developer, died at his Santa Ynez Valley home. His death came on the 84th birthday of his wife of 50 years, Marcella.
The first installment of “Davy Crockett,” with Buddy Ebsen as Crockett’s sidekick, debuted in December 1954 as part of the “Disneyland” TV show.
The 6-foot, 6-inch Parker was quickly embraced by youngsters as the man in a coonskin cap who stood for the spirit of the American frontier. Boomers gripped by the Crockett craze scooped up Davy lunch boxes, toy Old Betsy rifles, buckskin shirts and trademark fur caps. “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee …”) was a No. 1 hit for singer Bill Hayes while Parker’s own version reached No. 5.
The first three television episodes were turned into a theatrical film, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” in 1955.
True to history, Disney killed off its hero in the third episode, “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” where the real-life Crockett died in 1836 at age 49.
But spurred by popular demand, Disney brought back the Crockett character for some episodes in the 1955-56 season, including “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race.”
Parker’s career leveled off when the Crockett craze died down, but he made a TV comeback from 1964-1970 in the title role of the TV adventure series “Daniel Boone” – also based on a real-life American frontiersman. Actor-singer Ed Ames, formerly of the Ames Brothers, played Boone’s Indian friend, Mingo.
After “Daniel Boone,” Parker largely retired from show business, except for guest appearances, and went into real estate.
“I left the business after 22 years,” Parker told the Associated Press in 2001. “It was time to leave Hollywood. I came along at a time when I’m starting out with Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Sterling Hayden and Gregory Peck.”
“Who needed a guy running around in a coonskin cap?” he said.
After departing Hollywood, Parker got into real estate with his wife, Marcella, whom he had married in 1960.
He bought and sold property, built hotels (including the elegant Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa in Los Olivos and Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort Santa Barbara) and grew wine grapes on a 2,200-acre vineyard on California’s Central Coast, where he was dubbed King of the Wine Frontier and coonskin caps enjoyed brisk sales.
After its inaugural harvest in 1989, Parker’s vineyard won dozens of medals and awards.
The Parkers’ son, Eli, became director of winemaking and their daughter, Ashley, also worked at the winery.