Fess Parker: Handling the Curves
The turning points in life that lead to fulfillment and happiness often come clothed as bitter disasters. Former Hollywood star Fess Parker of Disney’s Davy Crockett fame met his most important turning point at the vicious twist of a knife blade by a man intent on killing him.
After a World War II Navy tour, the tall, lanky, dark-haired Parker returned home to West Texas. “I had just come back to Abilene and enrolled in summer school, and I was thinking about trying out for the Hardin-Simmons football team.”
One evening while cruising down a deserted West Texas highway, taking his girl home after seeing a double feature, another car drove up behind him and without warning, bumped Parker’s car. Before he could do anything, the car pulled up beside him, and the man driving it began to scream curses at him. He pulled ahead, and Parker followed him, intent on finding out why he had been threatened. As Parker pulled up behind him in front of a house, the man got out of his car and waited in the driveway.
Parker walked up to the man and asked why he had slammed his car and cursed him. “He told me I was a stupid s.o.b.,” Parker said. “I said, ‘Take off your glasses.'” Instead, the man lashed out with a knife he had hidden behind him and slashed Parker’s throat.
Realizing he would die without immediate medical attention, Parker managed to force the man to drive him across town to a hospital. Twenty veins had been severed in his neck, causing paralysis that would last over a year. Later, in front of a grand jury, the man claimed Parker had knocked him down three times, and he had pulled the knife in self-defense. Parker told the jury: “I’m 6-foot-6 and I weigh about 225 pounds, and I don’t think there is anybody on this grand jury that I could knock down three times and could get up and cut me.” Nevertheless, the grand jury let it go. Parker spent months in trauma.
“Every night I would relive the incident until I finally realized that talking about it was the best way to get rid of it.” Frankly discussing it with anyone who asked about his scar helped, but the injustice of what happened burned in Parker’s breast, and he decided to pursue a career in law at the University of Texas in Austin.
As the pain faded, so did the desire to be an attorney. Interested in acting and realizing his unusual height might help him, Parker began thinking about going to Hollywood. At just the opportune time, veteran actor Adolphe Menjou made a guest appearance at the university. The professor in charge of showing Menjou around didn’t have a car, so he asked Parker to be their driver.
Before leaving, Menjou turned to Parker out of the blue and asked if he would like to work in western films. Parker told him of course. “Yes sir, I would,” he answered. Menjou offered to introduce him to his agent if he came to Hollywood after he graduated.
Menjou kept his word, and although it did not immediately lead to anything, it was Parker’s introduction into Hollywood and films. He began working with actors such as Henry Fonda, Lee Van Cleef and James Arness. Walt Disney chose him to star in the enormously successful Davy Crockett series. “Old Yeller” became another Disney smash. “Hell is for Heroes” teamed Parker with top actors Steve McQueen and James Coburn. Moving to television, Parker scored again with the Daniel Boone series.
When his career stalled after the 6-year run of Daniel Boone, Parker faced another turning point. He decided to retire from show business. Entering real estate, he eventually met with even more success than he achieved with acting. Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort Hotel sits on 23 acres of ocean front property in Santa Barbara; he and his family donated land for a park nearby. Another five-star resort hotel is in the works. As a family project, Parker went into the wine business. The Fess Parker Family Winery and Vineyards in Los Olivos covers 1,500 acres and includes a luxury inn and spa.
A tragic incident ended a young man’s dream of college sports, but it propelled him to walk down another road, putting him in the right place, at the right time. Fess Parker has no regrets.
“My life has been sort of unplanned, and I’m happy with it that way.”