If you don’t remember Fess Parker, who died this week as an 85-year-old winery owner, you missed the Fifties. Parker played Davy Crockett in Walt Disney’s TV miniseries about the lively Tennessee frontiersman, and did it with such sincerity and style that he not only turned coonskin caps into a national craze, he also rescued Davy Crockett from creeping obscurity.
We owe Fess for that, big time. Heroes fade with times and fashions, often for capricious reasons, and Davy Crockett, arguably America’s first home-grown celebrity in the sense we use the term today, was well on his way to the ash heap of historical memories for the 47 states not called Texas. Then, in 1954, big, handsome, laconic Fess Parker began portraying him on “Disneyland” in the “Davy Crockett” series, which had about as much in common with history as a Goofy cartoon. Still, millions of kids learned some important facts about Davy, including that he was elected to Congress, and after being defeated, lit out for Texas with some friends, only to find himself in the Alamo. The amazing Davy Crockett pop culture fad made Parker a star, but more importantly it established Davy Crockett in the pantheon of iconic American heroes for good.
Why was Davy’s comeback important? Like another iconic figure who once portrayed him, John Wayne, what Davy Crockett symbolizes in American culture matters more than his real life story. He built a reputation for being the perfect example of the rugged American individualist, standing tall for basic values, especially honesty and courage, while keeping a sense of humor and an appetite for fun. In his doubtlessly ghost-written 1834 hagiography, “Narrative of the life of Colonel Crockett,” Crockett stated his credo as
“I leave this rule for others when I’m dead: Be always sure you’re right–then go ahead.”
It is as good an exhortation to live by the ethical virtues of integrity, accountability and courage as there is, and it gained great credibility when Crockett remained in the Alamo to die defending a nascent Texas republic, in complete harmony with his stated ideals. Battling for right against overwhelming odds,remaining steadfast in the face of certain defeat, never complaining, never looking back once he had decided to “go ahead,” Crockett’s legend is a valuable and inspiring, if not always applicable, example for all of us when crisis looms. Nobody who ever saw the final fade-out of the Disney series’ final episode, with Fess Parker furiously swinging “old Betsy,” Crockett’s Tennessee long rifle, like a baseball bat at Santa Anna’s soldiers as they swarmed over the walls, ever forgot the image, or mistook what it meant. Davy knew he was going down, but he would fight the good fight to the end.
Cynics and pedants grouse that the real Davy was more politician and self-promoting huckster than hero, that the Alamo Texans were fighting as much for slavery as for freedom, and that Davy may not have even gone down fighting, but instead tried to talk his way out once he knew the battle was lost. (Any and all of these are still debated, and excellent invitations to get your nose broken in Texas or Tennessee.) Their objections miss the point. It is the Davy Crockett of legend who is our inspiration to courage and virtue, and he is the Davy that Fess Parker and Walt Disney preserved for us. An ethical culture thrives on vivid images, ideals and metaphors as well as fact, whether it is George Washington and the cherry tree (myth), Dolly Madison rescuing the portrait of George from the invading British before they burned the White House(fact), 90 year-old Barbara Fritchie waiving a Union flag in the face of Stonewall Jackson (probably fiction), or Jimmy Stewart as “Mister Smith,” filibustering himself hoarse to expose Senate corruption (only a movie). Fess Parker gave us back the Davy Crockett we need.
Thanks, Fess….thanks, Walt….and thank you, Davy…..