LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — Heavy hangs the coonskin cap.
It's been almost 50 years since Fess Parker donned the fuzzy headgear that launched the first blockbuster cultural phenomenon of the baby boom generation.
At its peak, the frenzy started by Parker's Davy Crockett character helped sell 5,000 coonskin caps a day, causing the price of raccoon fur to jump from 25 cents a pound to $8. Before it was over, Crockettmania accounted for $300 million in sales of everything from Davy wristwatches to lunch boxes.
"I will immodestly tell you it was bigger than anything, ever, including The Beatles and Elvis," Parker says in a rumbly Texas drawl as he cuts into a stack of hot cakes. Dressed in a work shirt and jeans, he eats breakfast frequently these days at his wine country inn north of Santa Barbara, where he pursues his second career as a developer, hotelier and vintner.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 372 words Type of Material: Correction
Fess Parker film--A Column One story on Friday about actor-businessman Fess Parker misstated the 1954 release date of "Them!," a science fiction film in which he appeared.
His wines earn far better reviews than his acting ever did. His patronage is sought by politicians. His generosity is well-known: He donated land for a park in Santa Barbara and he's at the front of every fund-raiser's Rolodex in the Central Coast.
But, try as he might, Parker never managed to escape the shadow of the coonskin cap. At first, it looked as if it would be the end of him. The Crockett craze lasted only a year, but he was so typecast by his boss, Walt Disney, that he couldn't get other acting jobs. When he finally did, it was to play another guy in a coonskin cap, Daniel Boone.
The fans were unyielding. They wanted their hero to stay just as he was when he came into their living rooms during evenings in 1954--unblemished, accessible, upstanding. That was yet another burden--trying to live up to a Hollywood caricature.
Now 78 and looking forward to what might be his most ambitious project--a top-drawer resort hotel on the beach in Santa Barbara--Parker says he is at peace with his backwoods doppelganger.
"It wasn't always a comfortable fit," he says of the cap. But the passage of time has helped him rediscover "what a fabulous streak of luck I had."
A couple years ago, he made an important connection. "I've learned a thing or two from Davy Crockett," he said at the time. "I don't give up."
The first thing you notice about the man who mangled the English language on screen with phrases like "perzactly" and "discombobulated flutterbation" is his delicate, almost courtly manner. He calls visitors Mr. So-and-so, not by their first names. His staff--he employs about 500 people--refers to him as Mr. Parker, never Fess. And he becomes noticeably uncomfortable when asked how much money he has, joking that if "all the money I owed was income, I'd be well off."
The only ostentatious bauble he shows off is a gleaming, air-conditioned Humvee, which he fires up after breakfast for a tour of his ranch in the yellow cattail canyons of the Santa Ynez Valley. The Humvee, which he calls a "Lincoln on steroids," was a gift from his wife of 42 years and the rest of his family on his 75th birthday. The party was held at a lake on the ranch, next to a hand-built re-creation of the Alamo, the Texas fort where Davy Crockett and the rest of a small band made its last stand against the Mexican army.
About half of his 3,000 acres is in wine grapes. Parker's other holdings include a partnership with Hilton in the Fess Parker Doubletree Inn on the beach in Santa Barbara, the 21-room Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos and the winery in Foxen Canyon. He also has a home in Montecito, not far from Oprah Winfrey's.
A man for whom doing the right thing in just the right way matters a lot, he starts to park the Humvee at the rear of the winery, then backs out so that he can park in front. He says that offers the most scenic approach.
This fussiness, besides being very un-Crockett-like, is an object of mirth for family members who chide him for being too concerned with appearances. But he's right. The view of the winery from the front is a dramatic one. Set back on what must be the largest and greenest lawn in this dry valley, the gabled building has a big, cool front porch. The whole thing resembles the Big House on a Texas ranch and a visitor half expects a gang of folks to come piling onto the porch in welcome. Instead, as Parker climbs up the steps, Shirley Borrow squeals, "I'll just die."
The 67-year-old Michigan tourist is almost beside herself at actually meeting him. Parker smiles and shakes hands. This is the part of the business that comes easily to him. Parker has no idea how many hands he has shaken in his lifetime, though he knows he shook 3,000 a day during the height of Crockettmania. "My hands got really sore," he says. "Housewives [who squeezed hard] hurt the most."