It’s everywhere: traditional American icons are under attack. The Founding Fathers, early settlers and explorers, and war heroes were power-hungry, genocidal, or criminal. Some, like Rosa Parks, have managed to endure. But there is an ever-growing list of the once-revered who are now unfit to be honored in this politically correct day and age. Among them, my childhood hero: Davy Crockett.
On March 28, I hopped into my rental car and set out for the 4-hour trip down to the outskirts of Santa Barbara. I arrived in Los Olivos, a cozy vineyard-based town, about an hour early, and took the opportunity to explore. There were more American flags hung up along a single street than there are on any given day on campus.
After killing time and going over the interview questions in my head (since things rarely go according to plan, this is about as useful as rehearsing your lines for a break-up speech), I knocked on the door to my subject’s office and entered. His assistant showed me in and introduced me to the big man himself: Mr. Fess Parker.
Stanford alumni reading these pages are probably more likely to know that name than are my classmates. Anyone growing up in the 1950s and 60s would know him better as either Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, having played both for Disney. My parents raised me on the old Crockett shows, a mere five episodes in all. I even have a coonskin cap (yes, the tail is real fur!).
Now a successful businessman, Parker was warm and friendly. He approved of my history major and my parents’ decision to show me the old stuff. I told him the focus of the interview would be on things I couldn’t find on the Internet, which tends to concern itself primarily with his movies.
Clark Gable, James Stewart—these actors enlisted during World War II. Parker was born in 1924, which would make him the perfect age to do the same thing. Turns out he graduated high school in 1942 and went to the Army Air Force base that summer, but was told 6’5” was too tall for aviation. He joined the Navy and trained to be a gunner, but was later told he was too tall to even be in a plane. He found himself on a troop ship in the Pacific when the first atomic bomb was dropped.
Parker admits academics were not always his strong suit. After the war he tried law school, but decided it wasn’t his “resting place.” Caught “in the throes of a disastrous romance,” he also “failed every subject” in business school. To keep his head above water, he started taking Russian under Arthur Prudden Coleman, a staunch anti-Communist. According to Parker, Coleman had just resigned from Columbia University over his opposition to Communist Poland’s offer of an endowed Slavonic chair.
Coleman had a “political pen pal” named Adolphe Manjou, a famous actor who helped Parker get his start in the acting business. He proudly showed me an old photo to see if I could identify Manjou, but alas, I could not.
When Parker mentioned he played in some Westerns, I asked if he ever ran into Ronald Reagan. He immediately launched into a comical story about how he was passed up for a role in favor of the future president. He later mentioned that his daughter worked for the Reagan administration, and again proudly showed me a photo.
What does the man who played the iconic Crockett think of the 2004 remake, which features a Billy Bob Thornton too good for coonskin? Turns out Parker never saw it. He joked that the modern-day producers spent as much on food for the cast and crew as Disney spent on the entire 1950s series.
The conversation flowed easily from there. He’s not a fan of loudmouth actors like Martin Sheen. He thinks our priorities are “upside-down” when soldiers get paid so little. He is concerned about an attitude that says actions come with “no consequence,” whereas “if you live long enough, you learn that’s not right.” A history enthusiast, he hopes schools get “back to the fundamentals.” He has also been a Republican since 1952.
A patriotic family man still married to his first wife, and yet a Hollywood icon. Who would’ve figured?