The King of the Wild Frontier is dead. Six-foot-six actor turned six-foot-six winemaker Fess (yes, his real name was Fess) Parker, 85, died on March 18. Davy Crockett, the man who made Parker famous, died March 6, 1836, quixotically defending the Alamo during an early US war of imperialist expansion. In the public mind, seldom have actor and character been so thoroughly confused.
Politically, the Texas-born Parker, good buddies with wine-country neighbor Ronald Reagan, billed himself as a conservative and, in 1985, briefly considered challenging California Democrat Alan Cranston for the Senate. Crockett, a renegade Jacksonian, represented Tennessee in Congress from 1827 to ’31 and famously opposed the Indian Removal Act that sent the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears.
Parker and Crockett’s paths merged in 1954, when Disney Studios cast Parker as frontiersman/superman Crockett in a three-episode TV miniseries — part biography, part tall tale — that launched a major industry in coonskin caps and Crockett toys, T-shirts, and lunch boxes. The fad was ubiquitous. Billboard charted “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Bill Hayes at number one for five weeks running. (Actor Joel Grey’s dad, Borscht Belt comic Mickey Katz, parodied the song, in Yinglish, as “Duvid Crockett.”) In 1956, progressive Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver wore his long-time trademark coonskin cap when he campaigned for vice-president with Adlai Stevenson.
Crockett-according-to-Disney became an overnight national hero and role model — honest, earnestly plain spoken with cunning clarity, and, emblematically American. Kids where I lived emulated him for good-guy role play, adopting Davy’s common-sense confidence, humble self-righteousness, sincerity, and even his flatly delivered folksy slang: “I’m plum flutterated by the offer.” “Well, not persactly. . .”
The movie hero’s escapades — single-handedly ending an Indian war in one-on-one combat, deserting the volunteer army to feed his family, ending his political career by publicly opposing Andrew Jackson, defending Indian settlers against white land-grabbers (“Injuns got rights. They’re folks same as anybody else.”) — were simultaneously patriotic and antiauthoritarian.
He could be embraced as a grassroots champion of small government or as a proletarian rebel. I favor the second interpretation, and once wrote that Disney’s Crockett “set the moral, political, and ethical standards” for the ’60s generation. (I also noted that Davy in buckskins would have been inconspicuous at Woodstock.) And behind it all lurked the Crockett-informed ideal that America could be both powerful and good, individualistic and socially responsible. Surely, the (inauthentic) Disney-movie image of Crockett’s last stand on the Alamo’s roof passed through the minds of a lot of anti–Vietnam War protestors squaring off across the barricades with the tactical police.
I suspect Parker would have been fairly flutterated by that comparison, but no matter. Like it or not (and he certainly profited by it), Parker never could escape his association with the folk-hero Crockett. The Parker the public knew was Crockett, and the Crockett he portrayed was a principled champion of the poor, constitutionally opposed to war, racism, and dirty politics. Had Parker run successfully for Senate in ’85, I would have expected him to call out Reagan on Iran-Contra and deliver a career-ending golliwomper about it on the Senate floor, because, like the man in the movie said, “Davy Crockett don’t lie.”
Was Fess Parker Davy Crockett? Well, not persactly. But that really doesn’t matter. Long live the King.