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AN APPRECIATION: Fess Parker's Davy Crockett was a hero when we needed one.

The actor's character embodied courage and common sense in the uncertain '50s.

March 20, 2010|By Neal Gabler

Fess Parker, who died on Thursday at the age of 85, was not only present at the creation of modern mass culture, he was smack dab in the middle of that creation.

Before Elvis Presley, Beatlemania, "The Simpsons" and "SpongeBob SquarePants," there was Davy Crockett, the buckskin-wearing frontier hero whom Parker portrayed on Walt Disney's "Disneyland" television show beginning in 1954, and who, within weeks, had invaded the American imagination as well as the pocketbooks of American parents succumbing to their children's pleas for Crockett paraphernalia, especially Crockett's coonskin cap.

Crockettmania surged across the country. Forty million people, a quarter of the nation, watched each of the three programs of the Crockett saga. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" instantly became the No. 1 hit song. Ten million coonskin caps were sold, causing a coonskin shortage. And Parker was mobbed by tens of thousands of people when he arrived at airports during a personal appearance tour.

As surprised as everyone else by the craze, Parker would later ascribe Crockett's popularity to what he called "hero hunger" -- the nation's longing for something in which to believe. If so, Parker himself was a pretty good embodiment of traditional American integrity, and he came with an old-fashioned success story. He'd been born in Texas, joined the Marines, and then attended the University of Texas where, according to one account, he was discovered by a guest artist, the actor Adolphe Menjou, who was known in Hollywood for both his right-wing politics and his sartorial elegance. At Menjou's suggestion, Parker decamped to California and landed small roles in several films. He had given himself 36 months to succeed or head back to Texas. He was in his 36th month when he began filming as Crockett.

As the story goes, Walt Disney was watching the horror film "Them!" to assess its star, James Arness, for the Crockett role when he was struck instead by a tall, rangy bit player: Parker. Parker auditioned by strumming his guitar and singing for Disney and landed the role over several other contenders, including Buddy Ebsen, who would get the consolation prize of Crockett's sidekick, George Russel. Disney didn't seem to think much of the production. He had charged his program's staff with coming up with something that would promote Frontierland at the new theme park, scheduled to open the following summer, and Bill Walsh, the show's producer, said that they plucked Davy Crockett as a subject more or less randomly.

Despite the fact that it was largely filmed on location in Tennessee and that it had high production values for television, no one, least of all Walt Disney, had anticipated the mania after the first Crockett episode premiered on Dec. 15, 1954. But, in many ways, Crockett was a phenomenon waiting to happen. Television sales had skyrocketed until 55.7% of all American households had sets in 1954, up from 6,000 sets total in 1946.

Moreover, the postwar baby boom that would ultimately last from 1946 to 1964 and that would eventually total roughly 75 million new Americans provided a powerful cohort for mass culture generally and for Disney specifically. The combination of television, these children and an aggressive, vulpine Madison Avenue looking to take advantage of both would have given rise, sooner or later, to some craze or other. Davy Crockett just happened along at the right time to demonstrate the symbiosis of these forces. It was the realization of a new era.

But even Parker understood that Davy Crockett wasn't just manufactured by mass culture. It struck a much deeper chord in the American psyche.

Some at the time attributed its success to the country's need to assuage its self-doubt after the Joseph McCarthy red-baiting debacle earlier that year and during the struggle against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. Others thought that Crockett was an example not of inferiority but of American self-confidence. He was courageous, resolute, plain-spoken, common sense, transparent -- the perfect American to contrast with our wily Soviet enemies. Time magazine, surveying America in this period and extolling her virtues, even called it "Davy's Time."

And yet, if Parker had some John Wayne in him, he also had some Jimmy Stewart. Wayne had no modesty. Parker did. His Crockett was kind, temperate, sensitive, tolerant -- less an Indian fighter in the Wayne mold than an Indian mediator. He was also something of a renegade, opposing authority and challenging the system. That enabled him to bridge political and ideological divides or, rather, to blur them.

Conservatives claimed him -- and Parker was a conservative himself who was a friend and neighbor of Ronald Reagan -- but so did liberals. He belonged to everyone.

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