He's remembered by a generation as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, making Fess Parker royalty in the memories of many baby boom-ers.
The owner of the Fess Parker Winery 40 miles north of Santa Barbara, he sees upward of 1,500 people a week on tours there, and many offer a reminiscence and a compliment about the show.Now the over-40 set can nuzzle in the nostalgia of "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" ($19.99, Walt Disney's Family Film Col-lec-tion).
This film follows last year's release of "Davy Crockett - King of the Wild Frontier," the movie compiled from the original 1954 three-part miniseries that created such a craze. The theme song that stuck in everybody's heads - like it or not - shot to No. 1. Coonskin caps served as the chapeau for anyone in the know. And anything Crockett could be marketed: lunch pails, bedspreads, toy rifles resembling Davy's "Betsy."
"I was more than amazed. I was flabbergasted," the 70-year-old ex-actor said in an interview from his office. "For example, I will tell you this. I know this sounds self-serving, but I landed at airports with presidential crowds in atten-dance."
One time someone noted that more people were alongside the roads as he traveled en route from New Orleans airport than there had been for President Dwight Eisenhower.
"I mean it was that kind of phenomenon. We saw it again with Elvis and with the Beatles," he said.
And the sensation went international, too, with Parker visiting 13 countries, including Japan.
Of course, as many or more people remember him for his successful "Daniel Boone" TV series than Davy Crockett. ("It's a generational thing," he explained.)
"It's kind of nice to have one genre to hang your hat on, even if it was a coonskin cap," Parker once said. But while he certainly made a career out of playing legendary outdoorsmen, he conceded in this recent interview that it greatly limited him.
"I was honored and privileged to be the first person that Walt Disney . . . ever put under a personal contract. And that worked both ways: It was wonderful to have his attention and guidance, but on the other hand when I asked to have an opportunity to play in `Bus Stop' opposite Marilyn Monroe he felt that was not the kind of material that he wanted me to do."
And when director John Ford was planning to make "The Searchers," Disney told the producers that he had other plans for Parker.
"And those were kind of career-defining moments," Parker said.
Ultimately the restrictions led to his departure from Disney.
After 40 years, Crockett's exploits hold up extraordinarily well as family entertainment. Sure, the acting is a little ham-handed, but the stories are tinged throughout with humor, and life lessons abound: Anyone guilty of excessive drinking, deceit, violence, arrogance and braggadocio get their comeuppance.
Even by today's standards, Davy's benign, unbigoted attitude toward American Indians endures.
"It is a subjective lesson that I suppose you can always reinforce," said Parker, who still has that soothing, confident baritone drawl.
He recalled that one of the saddest experiences of his adult life came in 1968 during a handshake tour of Vietnam. He realized that the young men "there in that awful situation" were the very boys, the 6-year-olds, 8-year-olds, the 10-year-olds, who had watched his original show - "the kids of the Crockett era."
One G.I. told him that he got over his childhood fear of the dark from watching the show.
"Another one told me that he had a Vietnamese soldier in his sights and actually decided to back off on pulling the trigger. He said, `You know, I figured he was pretty much in the same position as I was, and that not all these people are bad people.' I didn't see that as failure to do his duty. I just thought there was a certain rightness to his decision."
The young soldier attributed his decision, in part, to values he learned from watching Davy Crock-ett.
"That was very touching."