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Fess Parker Hon. ’70, a televison icon to a generation of youngsters as Davy Crockett and later Daniel Boone, died at the age of 85 of natural causes. Parker, who was also a major California winemaker and developer, died at his Santa Ynez Valley home on March 18, 2010, on the 84th birthday of his wife of 50 years, Marcella. The 6-foot, 6-inch Parker was quickly embraced by 1950s children as the man in a coonskin cap who stood for the spirit of the American frontier. Baby boomers gripped by the Crockett craze scooped up Davy lunch boxes, toy Old Betsy rifles, buckskin shirts and trademark fur caps. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" ("Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee…") was a No. 1 hit for singer Bill Hayes while Parker’s own version reached No. 5. "Fess Parker has been a role model and idol of mine since I first saw him on the big screen—he is a true Hollywood legend," said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement. "As a talented actor and successful businessman, he was an inspirational Californian whose contributions to our state will be remembered forever."
Former first lady Nancy Reagan said Parker was "a longtime friend to Ronnie and me … He will be greatly missed." The first installment of Davy Crockett, with Buddy Ebsen as Crockett’s sidekick, debuted in December 1954 as part of the Disneyland TV show. The first three television episodes were turned into a theatrical film, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, in 1955.
Parker’s career leveled off when the Crockett craze died down, but he made a TV comeback from 1964-1970 in the title role of the TV adventure series Daniel Boone—also based on a real-life American frontiersman. Actor-singer Ed Ames, formerly of the Ames Brothers, played Boone’s Indian friend, Mingo. After Daniel Boone, Parker largely retired from show business, except for guest appearances, and went into real estate.
"I left the business after 22 years," Parker told The Associated Press in 2001. "It was time to leave Hollywood. I came along at a time when I’m starting out with Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Sterling Hayden, and Gregory Peck."
"Who needed a guy running around in a coonskin cap?" he said. Parker had made his motion picture debut in Springfield Rifle in 1952. His other movies included No Room for the Groom (1952), The Kid From Left Field (1953), Them! (1954), The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1956), Old Yeller (1957) and The Light in the Forest (1958).
After departing Hollywood, Parker got into real estate with his wife, Marcella, whom he had married in 1960. He bought and sold property, built hotels (including the elegant Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa in Los Olivos and Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort Santa Barbara) and grew wine grapes on a 2,200-acre vineyard on California’s Central Coast, where he was dubbed King of the Wine Frontier and coonskin caps enjoyed brisk sales. After its inaugural harvest in 1989, Parker’s vineyard won dozens of medals and awards. The Parkers’ son, Eli, became director of winemaking and their daughter, Ashley, also worked at the winery.
Parker was a longtime friend of Ronald Reagan, whose Western White House was not far from the Parker vineyards. Reagan sent Parker to Australia in 1985 to represent him during an event, and when Parker returned he was asked by White House aide Michael Deaver if he was interested in being ambassador to that country.
"In the end, I decided I’d better take myself out of it. But I was flattered," Parker said. Parker also once considered a U.S. Senate bid, challenging Alan Cranston. But Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt said it would be a rough campaign, and a key dissenter lived under the same roof.
Parker played football at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene but was injured in a nearly fatal road-rage knifing in 1946. He later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas.