Before his first appearance on television, December 15, 1954, Davy Crockett was a folkloric character of the Johnny Appleseed variety—known, but hardly famous. But after “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter” aired, followed by “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress,” “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race,” and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates,” there wasn’t an American young or old who hadn’t heard of the Tennessee pioneer and his trademark coonskin cap. The TV episodes, though shot in color (Disney was a visionary), aired in black-and-white because of TV’s limitations, but later were edited into two color feature films that played in theaters:  Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.

Actor Fess Parker became a household name and Crockett mania turned into a marketing bonanza estimated at $300 million. Just about every youngster in America sported a coonskin cap. Later, the craze would be analyzed in dissertations, because, as Margaret J. King pointed out in her 1976 study at the University of Hawaii, it demonstrated the power of a medium still in its infancy to shape generational behavior and values.

Although sidekick Buddy Ebsen went on to play Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies and private investigator Barnaby Jones, Parker, under contract for longer and defined by the frontiersman role, continued to work in the Disney “stable” and Western mode. He appeared in such films as Westward Ho! the Wagons (1956),  The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), and Old Yeller (1957). Between 1964-70, Parker donned the buckskins again to play Daniel Boone in the highly successful NBC series.

At the time this interview was conducted (June 28, 1995), Parker was busy putting his coonskin cap on wine labels—the logo for Fess Parker Winery vintages. Tourists who visited his winery in the gently sloping terrain of Santa Barbara County hoped for a glimpse of every baby-boomer’s hero, or better still, a snapshot and an autograph. Graciously, the man who will always be known as the King of the Wild Frontier, obliged.

This interview, conducted by phone on June 28, 1995, was first published online by the now defunct DVD Town in 2004. Asking the questions was James Plath, who had hoped to include the interview in a special Western issue of his award-winning journal of the arts, Clockwatch Review.

What was it that made Davy Crockett as Disney and you portrayed him so popular?

Well, first of all, Walt Disney was an icon.  Disney certainly had people who thought that some of his animations were a little too adult for children, but in general he was considered a beloved figure.  And when he decided to do television, I don’t think it mattered what Walt Disney was going to put on.  He would have drawn an audience. 

Walt Disney visits Parker on set

    The Davy Crockett choice as a subject matter for the first television show was somewhat a matter of chance.  They had gone so far as to decide to go with Zorro.  They had hired a director who was bilingual and they sent him to Mexico to find a location, and while he was down there looking for a location something changed Disney’s mind and they decided to do “Davy Crockett.”  By chance I was seen in a movie called Them! [a 1954 sci-fi thriller about mutated ants overrunning the Southwest] they were screening. Actually, I think they were looking at Jim Arness, who was the star of the picture.  When I reflect on it and realize that Walt Disney saw me in a scene that lasted maybe two or three minutes on screen and connected that portrayal with what he was thinking of for Davy Crockett, that’s an amazing leap of faith right there.  If he’d had a phone call or sneezed or someone had said, “I have a message for you,” he would have missed me. 

    But Disney was a perfectionist and he always believed, I think, because he was not a cynical motion picture producer who had done a hundred movies.  He had only done a few motion pictures with actors, and most of those in England.  He did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Kirk Douglas, one of the first movies that he made in his studio.  The studio went out and got an independent crew and directors, and so forth.  There was no in-house staff at the time, and he had come across a man who was a certifiable genius—Bill Walsh—who was on taps for the producing “Davy Crockett” and the beginning of The Mickey Mouse Club.  And Bill Walsh went on to do things like The Absent Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, The Love Bug, The Shaggy Dog, and Mary Poppins, to name a few.  So what Disney did was to put together a bunch of people that all seemed to work together and seemed to fit, and we had a lot of fun. 

    For the filming of “Davy Crockett,” he sent us as far away from the studio as you could go. We went from Burbank to Cherokee, North Carolina.  I have a picture in the winery that I treasure.  It’s a picture of Walt and his wife, Lilly, visiting our set. There was an actor named Pat Hogan, who was playing Red Stick, the Indian.  Pat was a very strong, athletic young man, and he and I had spent almost all of the day fighting in the water.

You had done your own stunts?

Pat Hogan as Red Stick

Oh yeah, we did all of our own stunts, and, you know, old Pat was sure wearing me out there in the water when Walt and Lilly showed up.  I was really pleased to see them. But I’m rambling now. What was it you asked me?

England has their legends of knights and dragons, while American folklore seems grounded in the exploits of the Western hero.  What about the Western hero seems to you particularly American or well suited to our culture?

Well, if I could just make a little clarification, I would say that pretty much the West was wherever the bulge of the Anglo-Saxon European community extended.  I mean, if it stopped at the Smokies, it was still the West.  So, I think the one thing that is even to this day still quite remarkable is the self-reliance, the knowledge of nature, the being comfortable with a certain attitude toward your fellow man.  I don’t know that all the western people were quite so magnanimous in their attitude.  I think the mythical characters has exaggerated those traits. But I think it comes down to a confidence, competence, and common sense.

These days professional athletes command the children’s attention, but in the ’50s every youngster wanted to be like Davy Crockett.  Were there any behind-the-scene tips that you were given on how Disney wanted Crockett to be played, or any sense of an obligation to the audience that came from playing a hero like that?

Well, to be honest with you, no one gave me any suggestions except there was a man named Basil Ruysdael, who played Andrew Jackson.  He was a very experienced actor and a keen observer, I think.  We were working together a little bit in the Smoky Mountains and then we were working together in some of the scenes when Jackson becomes president.  We filmed them in the Hermitage there in Nashville.  But he was aware that I had a big scene before Congress and it was a lot of work, and I think he directly surmised that I was a young actor without a lot of experience, and so one night before that scene was shot he said, “How are you doing with that Congressional scene?”  And I said, “Well, I know the lines,” and he said, “What about the transition?”  And I said, “Well, gee, I don’t know.  He said, “If you’d like—I’m not trying to butt in or anything, or get in your way—but I’d be glad to work with you a little bit on some transition.”  And I said, “Well, sure.”  So after dinner we went up to my room and I got that particular page out and Basil and I went over it a few times and he made some nice suggestions for me. That was the only time anybody ever really spoke to me about any portion of it. 

Basil Ruysdael as Andrew Jackson

    The director was a man who had been a Broadway star as a young leading man and had done some movies, and I had to eventually thank him for the work that we did together.  But at the time we did it, I was very uncomfortable with him.  I’m relatively soft spoken, and I think he was afraid that I would not come off.  Maybe I didn’t have enough energy in my work, and so you’d catch me about half-angry.  Every time I worked with him he was on me like a June bug—until we got to a certain point.  We were about three or four weeks into the filming and we had some dailies flown in and I think we were in one of the cities in Tennessee, I’ve forgotten where.  And we went to a little theater to see the dailies, and as we were coming out of the theater he looked at me and said, “You’re coming off.”  Well that was wonderful, because it gave me a lot of confidence. Up to that point, there had been some times in the previous three weeks that I thought, well, I’ll just leave.  I was so unhappy.

That was in ’54, during the filming of “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter”?

Yeah.  I knew there was a controversy going on and I guess it was a matter of trust.  I did not trust the director and I guess he didn’t trust me, and when you’re in that situation you’re uncomfortable.  Fortunately, we got past that point, and when I realized that it was working, it gave me the confidence to stick with my approach.

How much of the Davy Crockett soft-spokenness and awe-shucks demeanor is actually Fess Parker?

Oh, I don’t know.  It was not all that difficult to assimilate, because I’m from the Southwest and Texas.  I think it was well written.  Tom Blackburn and Bill Walsh shaped those episodes and blended them together with a little theme song, and it was just in the dialogue.  It was well done.

The singing cowboy thing must have been in the air, because you sang in Westward Ho! the Wagons.

I also sang in Davy Crockett, at the Alamo. I sang in almost every picture I ever did.  You know, my wife is a singer.  She had a beautiful voice, and even to this day people ask her to sing.  But the kind of singing I did and the kind of voice that I projected, well, that was just an actor with a lot of courage (laughs).

Could you talk more about Disney’s view of the West.  How, for example, was Disney’s West different from John Ford’s West or Howard Hawks’ West?

First of all, Walt Disney liked to film a story where it occurred, where it had a historical background.  That was the reason we went all the way across to the Smokey Mountains and to Tennessee, because that was Davy Crockett’s venue.  We had locations where there were a collection of authentic historical frontier structures—residences and buildings that were part of a state park in North Carolina.  When we did The Great Locomotive Chase we went to Georgia and worked on a narrow gauge railroad where the Andrews’ raid actually originated, and we used The General, the locomotive that was a part of Civil War history and is still in Chattanooga, Tennessee on exhibition.  So, part of it was he got it as authentic as he could in the setting, and he always in, my experience, used producers, directors, or actors who were not “finished.” I mean, he had a knack for getting people in transition.  Buddy Ebsen had been a song and dance man, and the war came along and he was in the service, and that interrupted his career. When he came back he wasn’t the young, engaging song and dance man, and he had to start over, more or less.  Walt Disney, I guess, was going to have him play Davy Crockett until he accidentally caught a little glimpse of me, and with that he decided I needed a buddy. I certainly did, and Buddy fit the bill. He was wonderful.

Could you describe the chemistry between those two characters, or between you and Buddy?

Ebsen and Parker on location

He is a gentle, talented, generous man, and I’m happy to say after 41 years that we still keep in touch.  Buddy, being a very experienced actor, gave me a lot to bounce off of and gave me all of the support I could have possibly wanted.  It was really funny.  I’ve never mentioned this before, but I’ve always laughed about it, kinda—we had to ride some horses.  They were really farm animals, but in the lexicon of things that are almost classic, the leading man often in Westerns would ride a white horse and the villain would ride a black horse, or a bay or something.  Well, they brought two horses over to the set and asked which one of these horses we would like to ride, so I said, “Buddy, you pick one.”  Buddy picked the white one and I rode the black one.  I’ve always chuckled about that.  He’s a great horseman, by the way.  Very comfortable on horseback.  We rode those old horses through water and swamp.  Had to pull ’em across half the time—places where horses hadn’t crossed in a hundred years.  Our director was a little suspect.  He was a city boy out in the country, so when it came to physical hazards, he was a little unconscious of the real danger.  But it was a real dangerous location, simply because there were not professional stunt people.  We rode our horses, we did our fights and endured flights of Indian arrows, and so forth.  It could have taken our eyes or hurt us in some way.

Sidekicks are always important to Western heroes.  What was Georgie Russel to Davy Crockett?

I think for purposes of the story he was extremely important, because the thought process behind action should be telegraphed—George’s concern or George’s support, depending on what Davy was about to do—about whatever they were going to undertake.  Georgie was the Greek chorus.

What about in terms of the psyche?  I would imagine that you did some reading up on Davy Crockett as a character or tried to get into your character’s head.  How important was a sidekick to him?

I think the sidekick actually existed in history.  I didn’t do any reading up on Davy Crockett, and I’ll explain why.  I was familiar with Davy Crockett from the time I could read.  His history was available to children by way of a very delightful pen-and-ink cartoon-style depiction of American—of Texas—history under six flags.  The beginning of the Indians, the beginning of the French, the Spanish, and so forth, and the British influenced the flags that flew over Texas at one point or another.  So I read that history from the time I was an elementary school boy and I studied American history, and I graduated with a degree in American history from the University of Texas.  As I say, Tom Blackburn and Bill Walsh had done such a good job with the material, I just used that.  I mean, in my own mind, I had my vision of it varied subjectively over the years, and

the material there was very easy to do.

Given the time that the series ran, it contains a surprising amount of realistic fighting and violence—Davy Crockett getting tomahawked on the back of the head, for example.  But the series also had an undertone of humor.  Is that what made the violence possible?

Well, I think it helped.  Humor is a part of frontier experience.  After all, wit and storytelling was at its peak during the early days of America because books were scarce. People had to make their own fun, so that was indigenous to the story. I’m surprised that in the context of the last 25 years, to know and to tell you that Davy Crockett was considered too violent, and edited after the fact.

Do you recall any scenes that you shot but were later cut?

You know, I can’t, because I have seen what is the present cut.  It’s been 41 years, and I haven’t seen the film that often.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of it, but not in its entirety.

What were some of the most difficult parts to film?

I was extremely worried about the scene where I was notified that Polly had died.  A funny little anecdote about that, Jim. The director placed us in that frontier village that I told you about.  In fact, Georgie had been dancing with some of the local folks and it was kind of a happy time, and then this news came.  I asked Georgie to read me the letter that contained the information that my wife had died, and so something came to me and I decided that I would play this scene in that way, so the director said, “Fine, let’s shoot it.”  I listened to Georgie read that letter and I got up at the end of the letter and I walked off into the forest.

Georgie reads bad news from home

    Well, I never knew where that came from, and I watch a lot of old pictures on A&E and other channels on cable, and one day I saw—and, by the way, Gary Cooper was my personal favorite actor of all time—and I saw a picture of him where he played, I think it was Lou Gehrig, and he said a few words out on the pitcher’s mound in farewell to the stadium, and then turned and walked off the pitcher’s mound toward the dugout.  It came to me that I must have subjectively been very impressed with the way he played that scene and actually forgotten where it came from in my subconscious.  But I believe I could tie it together, having seen him play that.  It’s not the same kind of scene, but it’s similar seeing him leaving and losing something that was quite dear to him.

In old Hollywood westerns, quite often white actors were painted up to look like Indians. But didn’t Disney use Cherokees during the filming of “Davy Crockett”? 

We were actually on a Cherokee Indian reservation, and the majority of the Indians were actual American Indians.

You mention Gary Cooper, and Cooper, of course, played a lot of classic Western heroes.  Was there anything about his portrayal that you also may have subconsciously borrowed?

It is quite likely. You know, his style was just phenomenal.  When I see him now, playing comedy, playing businessman, playing romantic comedy, playing the Western hero, it was a quality that he portrayed of listening, of reacting—but very subtly.   He could also be very comical.  I remember one scene, he was doing a romantic comedy with Barbara Stanwyck, and there was a moment where he was going to be involved in fisticuffs. He took the classic John L. Sullivan pose, and it was just a very funny scene, because you know, he could take you into his character so well that, as ridiculous as it was, it was funny and believable.

Getting back to the Disney movies, you had a very brief role in Old Yeller.

What happened there was kind of an interesting thing.  I was under a personal contract to Walt Disney the first two years that I was in the studio, and my contract was rewritten at my request at the end of two years or my agent’s request and at that point Walt Disney released me from a personal contract to him and I became under contract to the studio, and so the people at the studio began to use me as more or less a stock player.  So, I made I have maybe five or 10 minutes in Old Yeller on the screen. Because of the change in the way that they wanted to utilize my services I left the studio two years later.

So were they protective about you and not wanting you to appear in non-westerns, to maybe corrupt the Davy Crockett image?

Walt Disney was very protective.  I wanted to do Bus Stop and The Searchers, and he nixed Bus Stop for me and he didn’t tell me that they wanted me for The Searchers until after it was already made. I would have played the part that my friend Jeff [Hunter], who was my costar in The Great Locomotive Chase, played. After two years and without any significant breaks from the Davy Crockett image, I felt that Bus Stop or The Searchers would have given me the opportunity to be a part of John Ford’s group, but since I didn’t make that break, it affected the rest of my film career.  That was the fulcrum, which I had to either go up or go down—and I went down.

All because Disney was trying to protect the Crockett image?

That, and he had things for me to do that he thought were more important.  He saw it from his perspective.  From an actor’s perspective, you have to have an enormous amount of insight, and I must say that I did not have that good judgement of self-protective choices.  You know, it wouldn’t have been a very nice thing, but I could have declined, to some extent, to do things, and I would have protected myself.

Which of the five Davy Crockett episodes was your favorite, and why?

I think I liked the Congress episode best.  In looking back at it, it gave me a chance to get out of the buckskin.  It gave me the chance to be presented a little bit more as a leading man in certain scenes. I enjoyed the congressional part, and I also enjoyed the scenes with President Jackson.

Which was also filmed on location?

Yes, all of it.  Only the Alamo was filmed in studio.

Why was that?

They built the Alamo on a sound set.  I guess they assumed they could control it best.  They did a pretty good job of it, considering restricted space and so on.

Crockett mania is commemorated at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage and I’m wondering about how that coonskin cap craze helped to define the baby-boomer generation, or what effect it had on all of us. I remember wearing one of them as a youngster.

I know this sounds self-serving, but I’ve watched a lot of television in the last 40 years, been in a lot of it, and I think the thing that partly defines this for me goes back to what I said in the beginning: that Walt Disney was a revered figure when he presented this material, and his genius was that he said he never made films for children, he just made films that he thought were right. 

    When he made “Davy Crockett” and put it on television, he had a total audience rather than a segmented audience.  Today, or let me go back to Elvis Presley for an example.  Elvis Presley had an enormous audience, but it was an audience that was not total.  There were people who thought his act and his music were inappropriate.  There were people who just didn’t care for it.  Same way with the Beatles—phenomenal effect, and when they were visible in certain venues they were extremely successful.  But when Walt Disney went on television for the first few years, particularly, I think initially with Crockett, the entire family was involved.  Grandparents watched, parents watched, children watched, and neighbors watched.  Neighbors shared television sets because there weren’t enough television sets to go around.  I think it’s probably the most complete audience in television history.  Even Super Bowl games, with their enormous ratings, are basically a segmented success. 

But Crockett was also mythic, and that had to account for something. What about the character as you played him seemed human, and seemed idealized behavior that people should be striving for?

Well, I just think that the way that Tom Blackburn and the fellas shaped the story, there were so many good attitudes—loyalty, courage, standing up for your beliefs, adventure—all of those things were just sort of rolled up into a couple of guys that weren’t looking for trouble.  They didn’t offer gratuitous violence.  They just swam in their own pool, so to speak.

The shows obviously had a huge impact, even though there were only five episodes filmed between 1954-55. You’re almost better known for that role than you are for Daniel Boone, an hour-long series that lasted for, what, six seasons?

Parker and Ames step back in frontier time

Yeah, there was 165 hours of that.  You know, it’s interesting.  Yesterday in the morning and in the evening they showed a cut of “Davy Crockett.”  They came out and did some filming here at the winery last week and it was on the entertainment segment.  Very nice little clip, and I work in my winery a lot, Jim.  I’m there to greet people, sign bottles, and just generally have fun. I meet an awful lot of people who go back to those days and to Daniel Boone, depending on the age.

The Daniel Boone series teamed you with a couple of singers—Ed Ames and Jimmy Dean—and ex-football player Rosie Grier. Grier played a runaway slave turned honorary chief of the Tuscaroara Indians, while Ames played an Oxford-educated Cherokee. 

Well, we tried to keep the blue-eyed Indian with the Brooklyn accent from being cast on Daniel Boone, and Ed Ames’ character as an Oxford-educated Indian was a real stroke for us.  Ed was a romantic figure.  He was provocative in his character and he is a very fine actor as well as a brilliant singer, and of course Jimmy Dean brought comedy and a different kind of character.  Rosie Grier made a terrific impact for us. 

    You know, I still hear from Jimmy Dean and Roosevelt Grier.  I haven’t bumped into Ed in many years.  People ask about him all the time.  I just don’t know what he’s doing.  I assume he’s singing or acting in some venue.  The person I really lost track of is Patricia Blair, who played my wife.  The young man who played my son Israel, Darby Hinton, is still acting, he’s still part of the business.  The little girl [Veronica Cartwright] who played the daughter is quite a prominent actress.  That was a good company.  We had a fine actor in Albert Salmi, who played Yakima in the first year.  He was a kind of New York actor who only wanted to work a limited amount in a series.  He felt it was damaging in the long term.

Of all the Crockett maxims, is there any that you’ve really seized onto and live by?

Well, what I try to pass on is, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” That was attributed to Davy Crockett.  I regret to say I have not always followed that, but I am also happy to say that it has influenced me in a positive way, and I know that most people who were really a part of that period and loved the show have that somewhere in their memory. And I hope it has been useful.

James Plath

6-28-95

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates were released as a 60th Anniversary Edition 2-Movie Disney Blu-ray Exclusive in 2015 and are also available on DVD. The two films are currently streaming on Disney+.