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Fess Parker (1924-2010)

It was 56 years ago that Hedda Hopper proclaimed to a jubilant generation of little Baby Boomers, "Take off those black armbands, kids, and put on your coonskin caps, for Davy Crockett will hit the trail again." And now it's time to put them back on again. Fess Parker, whose portrayal of the sharpshooting frontiersman Crockett on Walt Disney's show was television's first monster hit, died Thursday at age 85.

Except for Elvis Presley, nobody left a bigger footprint on popular culture than Parker as Crockett. His original three-episode arc on the ABC kiddie anthology Disneyland -- Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, Davy Crockett Goes To Congress and Davy Crockett At The Alamo -- blew the lid off TV ratings when they aired in a nine-week span between December 1954 and February 1955.

They were edited together into a hit movie (Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier), spawned four hit versions of the show's theme song (one sung by Parker himself), and triggered a monsoon of merchandising that became a blueprint for every generation of marketers since. Everything from coonskin caps like the one Parker wore in the shows to bubblegum card to sets of plastic toy soldiers -- the latter thrown together so quickly that they featured Crockett and his men fighting Indians at the Alamo rather than the Mexican army -- racked up breathtaking sales. There were Crockett pencil sharpeners, pajamas, every underwear.

Though Parker's Crockett, like his real-life counterpart, died in a last stand against Mexican soldiers at the Alamo, Disney quickly discovered that the power of television couldn't be contained by mere death. By the end of 1955, Parker had played Crockett again in two prequel episodes (Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett And The River Pirates), and the whole craze was revived.

Parker went on to make some other films. He stood off giant ants in Them, the best of the big-bug movies of the 1950s, and was the strong, wise dad in the tear-jerking doggie snuff film Old Yeller. But audiences could never really separate him from Crockett. At first, he was bitter. "For a while I resented Davy Crockett," he later recalled. "I wished that I could have played Hamlet."

But eventually Parker decide to embrace his character's popularity. In 1962, he starred in a TV series called Mr. Smith Goes To Washington that was a kind of modernized (not to mention idealized) version of the real-life Crockett's terms in Congress. And two years later, he accepted the lead in NBC's Daniel Boone, practically indistinguishable from the Crockett role. The series was a huge hit and lasted six seasons. About the only thing missing was Crockett's trademark motto, which Parker adopted for himself: "Be sure you're right, then go ahead."


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