Fess Parker: An American Icon Got Better With Age

05/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We have giant ants to thank for bringing Fess Parker to the attention of Walt Disney, who was looking for an actor to portray Davy Crockett. I interviewed Mr. Parker, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 85, in 1994 on the occasion of the home video release of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. As he told it, Disney was screening the science fiction film Them, in which Parker had a brief scene:

"There were an enormous amount of possibilities that would have caused him to miss my little two or three-minute scene," he recalled in that folksy Texas drawl, "but he didn't get a phone call, he didn't have to go to the bathroom, someone didn't interrupt him. He saw me and asked who I was. No one knew."

That wouldn't last long. With the Dec. 15, 1954 broadcast of Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter on Disney's anthology series, Disneyland, Parker became TV's first American idol. The theme song ("Born on a mountaintop on Tennessee....") topped the charts, and Parker's signature coonskin cap became the fashion statement for kids who acted out Crockett's rustic adventures in their backyards. I became one of them when the episodes were re-broadcast on The Wonderful World of Color in the 1960s.

It wasn't just kids who admired Parker's plain-speaking, straight-shooting hero. When Parker visited Washington, D.C. to present a rifle to a retiring assistant secretary of defense, he was seated on a dais clad in buckskin ("I did what I was asked to do," he chuckled) with a distinguished gallery of senators, generals, and admirals. Parker recalled that during one speaker's presentation, guests in tuxedos and evening gowns lined up to get his autograph, and the dignitaries on the dais also began to pass their programs down for his signature. "I was stunned by that," he said.

In a lifetime of taking bows for Davy Crockett, Parker said the most meaningful moments were meeting adults who were influenced as children by his portrayal.

"I met some of the Vietnam fellas who were five or six years old when Davy Crockett came along," he said. "I was so touched by the fact that these were the little kids with the coonskin caps caught up in that awful situation. One fella told me that he was pretty comfortable in the jungle at night. He said he learned that from watching Davy Crockett."

A couple of weeks after our interview, a box arrived in the mail from Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard. He sent a couple of bottles of wine for me. There was something else in the box that gave me one of those nostalgic Baby Boomer tremors. It was a coonskin cap for my then one-year-old son. I couldn't resist trying it on. Just as I imagine myself to be James Bond whenever I don a tux, for that split second before my wife urged me to take it off, I was Davy Crockett, King of the Suburban Frontier.