When Fess Parker died last week at 85, much was written of his years delighting Americans as “Davy Crockett” in the popular 1950’s TV series of the same name and later was in the popular TV series “Daniel Boone.” Young male children in the 1950s all wore the coonskin cap that Parker made popular.
As the country bid farewell to the beloved actor, it was also noted that Parker phased out his acting career in the early 1970s to enter a new area—several, in fact. He started a luxury hotel, became a highly successful real estate developer, and ran the Fess Parker Winery in Santa Barbara, where he marketed his own line of wines and happily signed autographs to customers.
As head of his own property development company, Parker devised the master plan for turning 1,200 acres in Santa Clara into part of what is now known as “Silicon Valley” and purchased the last major underdeveloped property in the Santa Barbara beach area for industrial development.
The Side the Media Ignored
But there was another side of Fess Parker that was barely touched on by the press when he died and it was one I knew well as a political reporter. For most of his adult life, the Santa Barbara entrepreneur was a conservative Republican who worked hard for like-minded candidates and causes. In both 1976 and ’80, Parker considered and then decided against making his own run for the U.S. Senate from California. In August, 1985 he came the closest to making the Senate race. Following discussions with veteran California political consultants Stuart Spencer and Ed Rollins, he called Human Events.
“Fess Parker?” asked the young lady answering the phone in our office, who was obviously too young to remember Davy Crockett. “Will you repeat that, please?”
“FESS!, Frank Edward Sugar Sugar,” Parker replied with a laugh.
When he finally reached me, Parker explained that “I expect to go into the exploratory stages very soon and take some polls about the race [for the Republican nomination against Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston].”
His dealings with government bureaucracies as a businessman (“I’ve gotten results”) and a sense that he could do something about helping citizens overcome the layers of government led him to consider a Senate bid.
Although Parker’s knowledge of business-related issues and his duels with extreme environmentalists as a developer were significant, I was particularly impressed with his knowledge of foreign affairs. While he hated the apartheid of the time in South Africa, Parker also felt that “sanctions could damage the economy and thus not be helpful to the black population.”
Unless the U.S. was cautious with sanctions, he believed, South Africa would be “divided and thus given the Beirut treatment.”
On the defense budget, although he was “more cost-effective in this uncertain world,” Parker fully agreed with old friend, then-President Ronald Reagan, that “America’s primary duty is a strong national defense.”
Right From the Start
Fess Parker did not come to conservatism late in life. In fact, as a University of Texas law student following service in the military, the young Parker was a volunteer on the campaign of conservative Democratic former Gov. Coke Stevenson for the U.S. Senate against a young liberal congressman named Lyndon Johnson. He recalled vividly how Johnson was declared the winner of the primary by a much-disputed 87 votes and felt “Gov. Stevenson would have made a great conservative senator, but a federal judge’s orders were defined and Johnson’s ‘win’ was allowed to stand [by order of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black]. History has a strange way of treating people.” While a budding Hollywood actor in the ’50s, Parker became a Republican, a change “that started with my realization that the Democrats backed federal policies like paying people for crops they didn’t plant.”
By 1961, he was campaigning hard for Republican John Tower in the special election that made Tower the first GOP senator from Texas since Reconstruction. Later, along with onetime “Crockett” co-star Buddy Ebsen, he stumped for friend Reagan for governor of California.
Parker ultimately decided against a Senate race in 1986. Although he would never hold nor even run for office, Parker would go on to contribute to and campaign for other conservative Republicans. In January 1998, however, there was a special election for the U.S. House in his home district. While Human Events and virtually all conservatives nationwide were behind stalwart conservative state legislator Tom Bordonaro, Parker was firmly in the camp of Bordonaro’s primary rival, decidedly liberal State Assemblyman Brooks Firestone.
While covering the race, I called Parker to needle him about “going soft.” He patiently explained that Firestone was a fellow winery owner, that they had worked together in their community and were friends.
“Come by here for lunch and we’ll air our differences, old friend,” he said to me, good-natured even in disagreement. (Bordonaro won the nomination but narrowly lost the seat to Democrat Lois Capps).
With Fess Parker, friendship trumped all. I was proud to have known him for nearly 25 years and, most importantly, to be his friend.