By RICHARD SEVERO
Fess Parker, whose television portrayal of the American frontiersman Davy Crockett catapulted him to stardom in the mid-1950s and inspired millions of children to wear coonskin caps in one of America’s greatest merchandising fads, died on Thursday at his home in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, where he ran a successful winery. He was 85.
A family spokeswoman, Sao Anash, said Mr. Parker died of natural causes.
Mr. Parker went rustic once again in the 1960s to play Daniel Boone for a new wave of young television watchers, but by the mid-1970s he had largely given up acting and become a successful businessman and real estate developer. In 1987, he and his son, Eli, purchased a 714-acre ranch and established the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard.
Mr. Parker was a genial, handsome, imposingly tall but somewhat obscure Hollywood actor when he was discovered by Walt Disney, whose company was about to produce a series of Davy Crockett episodes for “Disneyland,” his new ABC television show.
Disney had been searching for a quintessential American type to play the rough-hewn hero of the Alamo and had considered established stars like Glenn Ford, Sterling Hayden and Ronald Reagan before deciding against them. When someone suggested James Arness, Disney went to see “Them!,” a well-regarded 1954 science-fiction movie in which Mr. Arness — who later went on to TV stardom on “Gunsmoke” — had a major role. Mr. Parker had a small but visible part in the film, and when Disney saw him — rugged-looking and well over 6 feet tall — he was said to have exclaimed, “There’s our Davy Crockett!”
The scriptwriter for the series, Tom W. Blackburn, and the head staff composer for the Disney organization, George Bruns, came up with a title song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and it was introduced on the first episode of “Disneyland” on Oct. 27, 1954, to publicize the coming Crockett episodes.
The song, with multiple choruses, began:
Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew every tree
Kilt him a b’ar when he was only 3
Davy, Davy Crockett
King of the wild frontier
“The Ballad of Davy Crockett” would become stamped in the memories of a generation of young viewers. A number of artists, including Mr. Parker himself, recorded the song, and it sold in the millions. Bill Hayes’s version reached No. 1 on the pop charts. Tennessee Ernie Ford, Eddy Arnold, Burl Ives and Mitch Miller were among the others to come out with recordings.
The first episode of the Davy Crockett trilogy, “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter,” with Buddy Ebsen as Mr. Parker’s sidekick, George, was shown on Dec. 15, 1954. “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress” appeared on Jan. 26, 1955. By the time the last episode, “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” was broadcast, on Feb. 23, 1955, the country was in a Crockett frenzy.
Children wore coonskin caps to school and wore them to bed. They wore them with their Davy Crockett plastic fringe frontier costumes while they played with their Crockett trading cards, their Crockett board games and puzzles, their Crockett color slide sets and their Crockett powder horns. They pestered their parents for Crockett toy muskets and Crockett bubble gum and Crockett rings and comic books.
By the end of 1955, The New York Times reported, American children had their choice of more than 3,000 different Davy Crockett toys, lunch boxes, thermoses and coloring books.
The Disney studio also turned episodes from the series into two feature films — “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” in 1955 and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” the following year.
If the Disney scripts stretched the truth about Crockett, the final episode remained faithful to at least one historical fact. The real-life Crockett died at the Alamo in 1836 at the age of 49, and Mr. Parker’s Crockett fell there, too. But Disney, responding to a public outcry, brought him back for episodes in the 1955-56 season, including “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race.”
“Take off those black armbands, kids,” the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote, “and put on your coonskin caps, for Davy Crockett will hit the trail again.”
But not for long. By early 1956 interest had begun to flag, and as suddenly as it had begun, the craze ended.
Mr. Parker had brought a quiet, manly dignity to his portrayal of Davy Crockett. Paul Andrew Hutton, a historian at the University of New Mexico, said the character had given young children “an appreciation not only of history but of a kind of patriotism and self-sacrifice.”
Years later, Mr. Parker said, Vietnam veterans told him that watching his Crockett deal with fear when they were young had influenced their conduct in battle.
Mr. Parker continued to star for Disney in films like “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956), “Westward Ho the Wagons!” (1956), “Old Yeller” (1957) and “The Light in the Forest” (1958).
But he began to chafe at the roles the Disney organization was offering him, and when he refused to appear in “Tonka,” the studio suspended him. He was unhappy, too, that Walt Disney had discouraged his being cast in “The Searchers,” the John Ford classic starring John Wayne, and “Bus Stop,” with Marilyn Monroe.
In 1963, Mr. Parker took to the stage as Curly in a touring production of “Oklahoma!” But the movie roles he wanted didn’t come his way.
In 1964 he put on buckskin again in the title role of “Daniel Boone.” That series ran for six years, but it didn’t capture the public’s imagination the way “Davy Crockett” had.
Fess Elisha Parker II was born in Fort Worth on Aug. 16, 1924, and grew up in San Angelo, where his family raised watermelons, peanuts and cattle. He attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Tex., before joining the Navy in World War II and participating in mopping-up operations in the Philippines. Afterward he attended the University of Texas and the University of Southern California.
He began acting professionally in 1951, in the national company of “Mister Roberts.” Shortly afterward, he made his film debut in “Untamed Frontier” (1952), with Joseph Cotten and Shelley Winters, and appeared in small roles in other films.
Over the years Mr. Parker made many guest appearances on television variety shows. He also had a short-lived series in 1962 called “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” based on the 1939 Frank Capra movie that starred James Stewart.
Mr. Parker married Marcella Rinehart in 1960 and died on her 84th birthday, Ms. Anash, the family spokeswoman, told The Associated Press. Besides his wife, he is survived by his son, Fess Elisha Parker III; his daughter, Ashley Parker-Snyder; and 11 grandchildren.
As a developer and entrepreneur, Mr. Parker had interests in luxury hotels and a mobile home park in addition to his winery, which had its first harvest in 1989. He also acquired a reputation for being sure of himself and determined to get his way. Playing Davy Crockett, he said, had made him that way.
And if Crockett had a shrewd side, so did the businessman in Mr. Parker, who understood the character’s continuing marketing power long after the ’50s craze had become a memory.
At his winery visitors almost invariably asked him about Crockett, and he was sure to direct them to the gift shop, where coonskin caps were for sale. And though he politely but consistently refused to wear one for their cameras, he was always happy to sign a Fess Parker wine label, bearing its familiar trademark: a tiny picture of a coonskin cap.