Friday, March 19, 2010

Fess Parker (August 16, 1924 – March 18, 2010)

Back in the early summer of 1968, when I was 12 years old, we took a trip to Southern California.  My dad had an aerospace conference to go to at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (just a few months after Robert Kennedy's assassination there), and we stayed at a little motel on the north side of Sunset.  We did all the normal stuff for kids:  Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, the Beach, Marineland.  But the most memorable thing was a chance meeting with Fess Parker that resulted in us visiting the set of The Daniel Boone Show.

One morning, one of the maids in the hotel came running to tell us that Fess Parker was in the motel restaurant.  She told us that he frequently stopped by for breakfast with some of his buddies from the show before going to work at 20th Century Fox Studios a few blocks over.  She told us to hurry.

My brother Steven and I ran down the balcony stairs and managed to catch him as he was getting into his car.  I remember that he was very tall, and seemed barely to fit into the driver's seat.  He smiled at us and said "Hi" as he reached for a pad of paper.  He gave us both his autograph, and then wrote a phone number down.  "Have your parents call this number, and you can come visit us at the studio and watch us film the show."

Fess Parker rehearsing for the opening of Disneyland in 1955

That afternoon, we were ushered onto the sound stage, while my dad sat at his boring conference. This was no tourist thing.  We were the only visitors.  We borrowed some of the typical hollywood folding chairs and watched as several scenes were filmed.  We wrangled an invite to spend the whole next day there too.

Fess was just like his on-screen persona:  Unassuming, humble, gentle, kind and never in a hurry.  Just a nice guy doing what he liked to do.

Fess Parker's two kids were hanging around the set, and Steve and I wandered around with Eli (actually Fess Elisha Parker III) and Ashley.  The kids had some kind of big bodyguard type that followed us around to keep them safe, but he didn't really interfere.  The only rules were to stay out of the way and keep quiet and unmoving during scenes. We got good at that.  The filming proceeded in fits and starts, with moves to various sets.  In between times, we were taught by one of the character actors how to crack a whip and spin a gun.  We had a wonderful time.

Dallas "Dal" McKennon, who played Cincinnatus, was asked by Mr. Parker to be our unofficial guide and caretaker during our two days on set.  He was only in a few of the scenes, so he basically showed us around.  If we had any questions, he would answer them, usually with a lot of colorful stories.  He told us the story of his life and how he did acting and numerous cartoon voices.  He also did many of the voices on the rides and exhibits at Disneyland.  Here is an audio interview with him.  I remember that he said he lived up in the San Fernando Valley.  Unfortunately, Dallas is gone now too.

Dallas McKennon on The Daniel Boone Show

My mother has always been something of a performer (she had her own radio show for a while in Hastings Nebraska), so she fit right in.  She was 42 at the time, but looked much younger.

Jimmy Dean was a guest star for this particular episode, and as Fess said, he was a "real smoothy".  My mom helped him go through his lines before several scenes.  (I don't think he really prepared beforehand.)   He tried to get my mom to stay another day so they could put her in the show, turned around once and said, "My goodness, you are a pretty woman," and even invited her to dinner (she declined).  Unfortunately, we had to leave, otherwise, my mom would likely have had a new career in TV westerns.

Jimmy was constantly telling cornball jokes, and was pretty much the center of attention whenever he was around.  One joke I remember went like this:

A man I knew once owned a race horse that could never finish a race.  At the first turn, it always veered off the track to the right, and got all tangled up.  The guy tried everything, special trainers, blinders, even hypnotism - although I don't really know how you can do that to a horse.  I listened to him and thought about it.  I told him that I had the solution.  "Since he always veered right," I said, "you jus' have to put a chunk of lead in his left ear."  "OK, so how do I get the lead into his left ear?"  "Well," I told him, "you simply gotta put a gun in his right ear."  Yes sir, that fixed the horse up real good for him.
One of the big running jokes on the set was that every once in a while, especially if he flubbed a line, Jimmy would say, "I am goin' to QUIT this business, buy some HAWGS and run a HAWG farm.  Yes, that IS what I sincerely am goin' to do."  Everyone would give him reasons why that was a stupid idea.  Turns out that one year later, he founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company, made a fortune raising "hawgs", and eventually made another fortune selling his business to Sara Lee, where he remained active in running the division for many years.

We ate with Dallas, the kids, and the bodyguard at the small commissary.  The next table over were a bunch of character actors and bit players for the show, and they were always causing a ruckus.  I think they thought they were really in the Wild West, and were acting accordingly.

Back at the set, an old film editor regaled my mom with stories of the old 20th Century Fox days and the famous movie stars from the 40's.  He looked down on the wild TV character actors, snapping whips, as representing a certain "fall from grace" for the studio.

My parents ran into Fess many years later at a store promotion in Boulder for his winery.  Unlike so many actors, he took the money he made and invested it, first in real estate ventures, including a DoubleTree hotel, and then in his winery. My parents talked to him quite a while.  When my mom mentioned Jimmy Dean, he said, "Oh, that old rascal?"

Fess also told them that the whole reason he started the winery was so that his kids would have a legacy -- a place for them to be and work and make money, after he was gone. 

Well, now he is gone, but he has an enduring legacy indeed .
There have been several turning points in my life, but the most important one came the day I stepped before the cameras as Davy Crockett. The way I look at things, a man's life story isn't his alone, but it belongs to a lot of people who have influenced him and done things for him that he can never repay....I guess you could call me plain. I don't go in for show. There isn't anything I want too much, except to be a good actor.

I think I'll go out now and buy some wine.  Maybe a little breakfast sausage too.


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