We had yet another wonderful afternoon at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Today we had the opportunity to spend some time with the children on Fess Parker as the final event to a Museum tribute to Davey Crockett this weekend. Jeff Kurtti, a Disney authority who we had the opportunity to see a few weeks earlier with Tommy Kirk, played guess moderator again. This time he was joined by Eli (Fess Elisha III) Parker, Ashley Parker Snider, and her husband Tim Snider.
Fess Parker was born in Fort Worth, Texas and grew up in San Angelo. At 6’ 6”, he grew up to be a Big Tall Texan. After being drafted into the Navy, Fess was stationed in San Diego. As was acceptable at the time, he hitchhiked up the coast in his free time, and as Ashley told us, fell in love with the Santa Barbara area. Ashley went on to tell us that her Dad himself would say that he was not the most diligent of scholars, but finally graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in History. After moving to Hollywood to pursue an acting career, Fess attended USC working toward a Masters in Theater History. His acting career started as an extra in the play “Mr. Roberts” in 1951, and soon after found himself on location for “Untamed Frontier” with Joseph Cotten and Shelley Winters.
Fess caught Walt’s eye during a screening done for him of the movie THEM! Walt was reviewing the acting of James Arness (you may remember James Arness as Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke) as he had in mind to play the part of Davey Crockett. Fess had a little part in the movie and the luck that this was the part of the movie which was screened for Walt Disney. Walt was taken by the sincerity portrayed in this scene featuring Fess, and as all of the panelists agreed, also probably felt that he could get this unknown actor a lot cheaper than the better established Arness at the time. Almost immediately, Walt signed Fess to a personal 2 year contract. Not with the studio, but with Walt personally. Later when Fess retained the services of Ray Stark as his agent, Ray got him out of his personal contract and negotiated a contract with the studio. Fess, always appreciative of the wonderful advice he received from Mr. Disney, felt that the relationship had somewhat soured some after the contract issue and was disappointed at that possibility. Years later, while promoting Daniel Boone at NBC, Fess and his wife, ran into Walt and Lillian, also a the same NBC event promoting World of Color, Fess got a tap on the shoulder. It was Walt, and he wanted to wish him the best of luck with Daniel Boone. The Parkers and the Disney spent a good deal of the rest of the day in conversation, and Fess was relieved relieved to learn that Walt did not hold any animosity about the contract, because as we were reminded again Fess really did appreciate the opportunities and advice he’d got from Walt. Eli and Ashley both admitted their Dad’s one frustration with his time at Disney was that he didn’t get the opportunity to play the kind of roles he really wanted to do, and ultimately felt like he was typecast. One last comment on Fess acting career before we move on to Fess Parker’s other endeavors. I did not know that the role of McCloud was originally offered to Fess, and Ashley told us that would have been a really problem for her as she had a serious crush on McCloud and Dennis Weaver as a young girl. She wasn’t sure how that would have worked if her Dad had gotten the role. Fess was also considered for the role of Jock Ewing in Dallas. Eli commented that 30 years after his Dad’s last acting gig, Fess was still telling people that he was between pictures.
Fess was always thinking and looking for opportunity. He could see the possibility when no one else seemed too. Ashley told us that her Dad’s on real estate disappointment was in a project for some land he owned in northern California. He just could muster the clout to pull the project off and had to sell out. The project later became the Silicon Valley. But Fess did have a knack for real estate developments. He developed the Double Tree Resort in Santa Barbara along with other real estate holdings. Fess bought about 23 acres of vineyard in Los Olivos, planning on growing and selling grapes to local wineries. But, upon discovering his son Elisha’s interest in wine making, the Parker’s went into the wine making business. We heard a story about a house that the Parker’s had on a hillside cliff overlooking the Pacific. During some inclement weather part of the cliff fell away and took part of the home with it. Some time later Fess was asked why he got into the grape growing business, to which he responded, ‘I was homeless and unemployed, seemed like the thing to do.’ Though it seems that Fess was not too handy, we heard a story about a house demolition at the ranch in Santa Maria where Eli was standing off of a porch, with Fess standing under the porch swing a big sledge hammer. Before Eli could get “DON’T..!!” out of his mouth, Fess had swung the hammer and taken out a column on the porch, with the porch collapsing around him.
Tim, Ashley and Eli all talked about how much Fess enjoyed visiting. I should probably mention here that during the talk there were pictures of Fess, the winery, and a few family shots scrolling on the screen in the theater. As a picture of the winery went by, Tim talked about how, during events for the winery’s wine club members, Fess would set up directors chairs out on the lawn and spend about five minutes visiting with each of the club member. As Ashley put it, “Dad said that they deserved that attention.” Tim, as Fess’ son-in-law, said that he never felt like Fess would push into anything, he just has that kind of personality that you didn’t want to disappoint him. Jeff Kurtti asked if this sounded like anyone else. Ashley’s comment about how her Dad enjoyed visiting crystallized a thought for me and made me realize why I enjoy attending events at the Museum – it’s very much like sitting and visiting when we attend these events. And I get the feeling that the people who come to visit with us enjoy it as much as we do.
As a kid growing up, Davey Crockett, and Daniel Boone were a couple of my heroes. It is very comforting to learn that the man that played those characters was as genuine and nice a person in real life. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, this has been a general theme in all of the events I’ve attended at the Museum.
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