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Fess Parker



Fess Parker as Daniel BooneFess Parker as Daniel Boone.

When I was 10 or 11, I complained to my father about our family’s annual summer trips to Greece. Oblivious to the beautiful sun and sand, I longed for a different kind of setting, one which existed (although I didn’t know it at the time) only on a Hollywood soundstage. “Greece again?” I would sigh, jaded world traveler that I was. “Why do we always have to go to Greece? Why can’t we go to Kentucky?”

Kentucky, of course, was the home of Daniel Boone, intrepid frontiersman of the 18th century, about whom I had an obsession. I had a hat reportedly made from a raccoon (a coonskin cap), I had a buckskin jacket with fringes, and I even owned an imitation musket (the single-shot rifle used by men like Boone). I also kept checking out my high school library’s copy of the biography Daniel Boone: The Opening of the Wilderness every week (when they retired the library card they gave it to me). And I would often go to sleep listening to audio tapes I had made of the theme song to the Daniel Boone TV series (“Daniel Boone was a man, yes a big man....”)

I thought of all this the other day when I heard the news that Fess Parker, 85, had died. When I mentioned Parker’s death to a thirty-something friend of mine, he looked blankly at me and asked, “Fess who?"

To older generations, that would never have been a question. Baby-boomers of the 1950s knew him as Davy Crockett, another American frontiersman, who famously died defending Texas at the Alamo and who was immortalized in the song, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.” That tune was sung in the Walt Disney mini-series (there were only five episodes), Davy Crockett. And baby-boomers of the 1960s, like me, knew him as Daniel Boone, who may not have been king of the wild frontier but was pretty remarkable nonetheless (as his theme song explained, he had “an eye like an eagle” and he was "as tall as a mountain”).

I never took to Davy as much as I did to Dan’l. (On the show, everyone called him that, except for his wife, Becky – she called him Dan – and his two friends, the Oxford-educated, part-Cherokee Indian Mingo, and the runaway slave Gabe Cooper, who both called him Daniel.) Davy was a bit too wild and immature, for my sophisticated 10-year-old tastes, and his adventures were a little too simple. Give me Dan’l, the family man, who had a quaint log cabin, two children (at least for the first three years of the series), and who was more mature and wiser than Davy in the ways of the world (though he still packed a mean punch in his frequent fist fights with bad-guys).Tom Soter meets Fess Parker, 1998. 

Tom Soter meets Fess Parker, 1998.

Although Davy Crockett was the international phenomenon (as most of the media told us in the days following Parker’s death), it was Daniel Boone that was the dependable choice. Crockett took off like a rocket in 1955 – as the New York Times reported, “American children had their choice of more than 3,000 different Davy Crockett toys, lunch boxes, thermoses and coloring books”– but it had fizzled out a little over a year later, leaving behind five TV programs that were reedited into two movies (Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates), and also a lot of unsold coonskin caps. Daniel Boone, however, generated much less heat but was a solid breadwinner over 165 episodes broadcast between 1964 and 1970 (it appeared in the 20 most-watched TV programs in 1968 and regularly beat its competition).

Never mind that both series were riddled with historical inaccuracies (starting with the fact that neither man wore a coonskin cap). Boone, for instance, was not a “big man” in a physical sense: unlike the 6-foot, 4-inch Parker, the real Daniel was an ”average man,” coming in at 5-9 or so. And he was no slavery-hating liberal; like any good southern landowner, he had his share of slaves. He was also apparently more sexually active than his television counterpart: compared to TV Dan’s two kids, Israel and Jemima, real Dan had at least a dozen children Of course, he had no Oxford-educated Indian friend named Mingo, but one aspect of that relationship carried some truth: he frequently befriended native Americans, lived for nearly a year with the Shawnee Indians as the chief’s adopted son, and learned much of his backwoods skill from his dealings with native Americans.

None of that mattered. The series was a rich fantasy, shot in beautiful Northern California exteriors and effective (though fairly obvious these days) sets, about a man who fought for what was right in a dangerous world but who kept his wits and his wit about him at all times. Surely, Kentucky – “old Kentuck” to some, the “dark and bloody ground” to others – was a place worth visiting, a place more wonderful than New York, more beautiful than Greece, more special than anywhere else a ten-year-old could imagine. It was, in fact, my own never-never land, a place I could not enter but would always know was there.

Adios, Dan’l.

March 20, 2010