Parker was a struggling 29-year-old actor in 1954, with rugged, boyish good looks and a soft Texas drawl, whenWalt Disney was looking for someone to play the lead in a three-part saga about Crockett. The three hourlong shows were scheduled to air during the premiere season of Disney’s weekly "Disneyland" TV show, which began on ABC that fall.
"Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter," the first of the initial three Crockett adventures, aired on "Disneyland" on Dec. 15, 1954, and unexpectedly turned Parker into an overnight sensation.
TV’s "King of the Wild Frontier" also touched off a merchandising frenzy: 10-million coonskin caps were sold, along with toy "Old Betsy" rifles, buckskin shirts, T-shirts, coloring books, guitars, bath towels, bedspreads, wallets — anything with the Crockett name attached.
Viewers also fell in love with the show’s catchy theme song. Bill Hayes’ version of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" soared to No. 1 on the hit parade and remained there for 13 weeks. And there were a couple of dozen other recordings of the song, including those by Tennessee Ernie Ford, Burl Ives, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and Parker himself.
"It was an explosion beyond anyone’s comprehension," Parker recalled decades later. "The power of television, which was still new, was demonstrated for the first time."
Even Disney was taken by surprise.
"We had no idea what was going to happen to ‘Crockett,’ " he later said. "Why, 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. It became one of the biggest overnight hits in TV history, and there we were with just three films and a dead hero."
The studio quickly rebounded, rushing two Crockett "prequel" adventures into production for the second season of "Disneyland" and editing the first three episodes into a feature film, "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier," which was released in May 1955. The two later TV segments, again featuring Buddy Ebsen as Crockett’s sidekick George Russel, were turned into a 1956 feature film, "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates."
During a cross-country personal appearance tour in the summer of 1955, as many as 20,000 fans reportedly showed up to greet the actor when he landed at each city’s airport.
Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger already HAD captivated television’s first generation of young viewers when the first Crockett adventure aired, but nothing before had equaled the effect of the buck-skinned hero.
"Those Davy Crockett episodes really brought American history — indeed, a Disney version of American history — to the playground as well as to the American living room," Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, told The Times some years ago.
"You not only could watch these programs, but you could play them, dress up like them, make the Davy Crockett aesthetic infiltrate every part of your life," said Thompson. "And, of course, those coonskin caps: No self-respecting kid under the age of 12 could go through American life without one."
But although "you can merchandise and market and promo something like crazy," Thompson said, "I think, in the end, for something like this to succeed, you’ve got to have an actor who can pull it off, and Fess Parker made a great Davy Crockett."
Born in Fort Worth on Aug. 16, 1924, and reared in San Angelo, Texas, Parker served in the Navy during World War II. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of Texas on the G.I. Bill in 1950, but by then he had developed a new interest: acting.
Moving to Hollywood in the summer of 1950, Parker landed an agent but discovered it wasn’t as easy to land a screen test: "They weren’t interested in wasting film on a tall, gangly guy with a broken tooth and a funny drawl."
With a year left on his G.I. Bill, Parker enrolled at USC with the goal of getting a master’s degree in theater history. But small acting jobs soon got in the way of that goal.
By the summer of 1951, he had gotten a job as a $32-a-week extra in the national company of "Mr. Roberts." And by that fall, he was on location playing a small role in "Untamed Frontier," starring Joseph Cotten and Shelley Winters.
Tipping my coonskin cap. RIP Fess…