20 March 2010

Fess Parker

The historical Boone didn’t wear a coonskin cap,
but because Crockett did, Parker did, playing both roles.
And so I don’t know which man he’s supposed to be in this picture.

For most of my early childhood, Fess Parker was my favorite actor, with few if any rivals. So it’s with regret that I realize, upon word of his death at the age of 85, that I haven’t gone back to look at his work in many years. I remember a mellow voice, a quiet good humor, and an upright dignity that served him well as a Western hero and that, in retrospect, mirrored qualities I saw in my father. But at the age of four, what I cared about was the adventure.

Born too late to experience firsthand the Davy Crockett craze of the mid-1950s, I was right on time to be enthralled by the Daniel Boone TV series. Very often Parker’s exploits inspired our playground games, and we kids discussed the show over lunch.* Other boys got store-bought coonskin caps (even Bernard, growing up in France, owned one) and buckskin jackets, but not me. This was a sore spot, and I decided to make my own, cutting up my parents’ bedspread in the expectation that, somehow, its many jagged pieces would come together in the perfect replica of Parker’s costume.**

As Davy Crockett, the Congressman:
Lower Taxes! More Texas!
Remember the Alamo! Remember the Appropriations Bill!

Among Parker’s other noteworthy screen credits is Old Yeller, in which he plays the long-absent father. The troublesome yet loving dog arrives on the scene just as Parker goes off on a cattle drive, and only when Yeller has met his fate does Parker return, as if they’re different incarnations of the same protective paternal spirit. Except that, you know, only one of them steals chickens.

I’m sure that Parker’s TV shows and movies taught me something. Daniel Boone, for example, was in some way about the importance of community, and Dan’l, while always an independent soul, was less a solitary hero than the leader of a small frontier town. Whatever he did, he did for his family, for his friends, for his neighbors. Davy Crockett combined tall tales with Texas history (which in some ways is the biggest tall tale of them all), and probably instilled some sort of patriotism in me, a worthy goal in my parents’ eyes; even the fact that Parker himself was Texan (born in Fort Worth) was meaningful.

…TV’s Daniel Boone: How many accidents resulted
when children copied his axe-throwing stunts?
Oh, if I had a nickel for every time Mom told me to put down that hatchet!

His function as a role model was explicit in his work. As a child, I understood that, just as Tommy Kirk watched Parker be a man in Old Yeller, so did I. And some day I, like Tommy, would have to shoulder a man’s responsibilities. And Parker wouldn’t be present to guide me, any more than he was for the boy on the screen.

But what else were Parker’s characters teaching me? I’d have to go back and look before I could say for sure. Early ’60s TV transmitted a lot of dubious messages. But no matter, really. Fess Parker made me want to run wild and free in the great outdoors. Through his steely eyes, I saw the vast Western frontier in my own backyard, and adventure around every corner of my suburban block; I saw possibility wherever I looked. And that, my friends, is persuasive acting — because it’s entirely possible that these ideas might never have occurred to me without his influence.

With Tommy Kirk, in Old Yeller.
“And while I’m away, son, you’ll have to do the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life, which will reduce future generations to sobbing fits and probably traumatize you for the rest of your days. If you screw up even a little, your mother and your kid brother will die agonizing deaths. That’s what it means to be a man. Sorry I won’t be around to help you through this ordeal; I’ll see you when I get back….
We’ll go fishing.”

*NOTE: Younger readers probably don’t know about one of the great viral rumors of the mid-1960s: namely, that Daniel Boone’s trusted Indian sidekick, Mingo (Ed Ames, see below), and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, of course) were played by the same actor. Though I didn’t start watching Star Trek until I was in junior high school, and thus had no idea who Spock was, I weighed in on this debate authoritatively and often.

**I had no concept of needle and thread; the costume was supposed to assemble itself by magic. I later learned that Mom had bought that bedspread to cheer herself up after President Kennedy was assassinated. Seeing it reduced to scraps and fluff on the bedroom floor, she was confronted with the necessity to move forward — “with vigor,” but without that material comfort. Really, I was helping her to stand on her own two feet, to face up to adversity by drawing, like a Fess Parker hero, on her inner resources. So why do I feel so bad — to this day — about having done it?

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

For your edification, I've looked up the French lyrics to the Davy Crockett theme song, "L'homme qui n'a jamais peur" (The man who is never afraid):

Y'avait un homme qui s'appelait Davy
Il était né dans le Tennessee
Si courageux, que quand il était p'tit
Il tua un ours, du premier coup de fusil
Davy, Davy Crockett
L'homme qui n'a jamais peur, qui n'a jamais peur

A 14 ans il s'était perdu
Dans un désert vaste et inconnu
Pendant 10 jours, il marcha vers le sud
Sans rien manger, qu'un p'tit peu d'herbe crue
Davy, Davy Crockett
L'homme qui n'a jamais faim, qui n'a jamais faim

Pendant la guerre contre les indiens
Il combattit tout seul contre vingt
Ayant une flèche, plantée dans une main
Il se l'arracha avec son autre main
Davy, Davy Crockett
L'homme qui n'a jamais mal, qui n'a jamais mal

Dans la forêt au coeur de l'hiver
Quand il chassait les loups et les cerfs
Le torse nu et les bras découverts
Il s'en allait, riant des courants d'air
Davy, Davy Crockett
L'homme qui n'a jamais froid, qui n'a jamais froid

Quand les peaux-rouges demandèrent la paix
Davy serra la main qu'ils tendaient
Avec les chefs, il fuma le calumet
Mais sans rien boire, pas même un verre de lait
Davy, Davy Crockett
L'homme qui n'a jamais soif, qui n'a jamais soif

On l'présenta pour les élections
Et ses discours rognaient l'opinion
Il était là, dans toutes les réunions
La tête froide, malgré son émotion
Davy, Davy Crockett
L'homme qui n'a jamais chaud, qui n'a jamais chaud

C'était un homme qui s'appelait Davy
Tout l'monde ici se souvient de lui
Face au danger, à la peur, à la nuit
Face au devoir, à la mort, à la vie
Davy, Davy Crockett
L'homme qui n'a jamais fuit, qui n'a jamais fuit