An Interview by Michael Barrier
December 15, 1954, during its first season, the Disneyland
TV show aired an episode called "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter."
It was the first of three episodes about the legendary frontiersman.
Fess Parker, who was then 30 years old, had been chosen by Walt
Disney himself to play Crockett. Disney had spotted Parker in a
2 1/2-minute bit part in a science-fiction thriller called Them!,
about huge mutated ants that were threatening the American Southwest.
Public enthusiasm for the Crockett shows was remarkably strong.
Huge crowds greeted Parker on a 22-city publicity tour in 1955,
and sales of coonskin caps and hundreds of other Crockett-labeled
items rose into the many millions of dollars. Writing about the
Crockett craze more than thirty years later, the newspaper columnist
Bob Greene was undoubtedly correct when he pointed to Parker himself
as the critical element in the TV shows' success:
"In his portrayal of Crockett, Parker brought to the small
screen a presence that was palpable; people looked at him, and they
listened to him, and they tingled. The face and the voice combined
to represent everything that was ideally male in the United States."
Although he had leapt to celebrity in a TV show, Parker's impact
was that of a bona fide movie star. He was tall (six-foot-five)
and handsome, but so were many other young leading men in the fifties.
Parker brought to the screen two priceless assets in addition to
his good looks. For one thing, he was relaxed in front of the camera
as few actors are, especially in TV, where the demands for speed
and efficiency have always encouraged actors to be tight and guarded.
For another, he could deliver dialogue with complete conviction
(a perfect example: his speech to Congress about the Indian bill
in the second Crockett episode). He seemed emotionally open, as
good actors must, but the emotions were those of a strong and even
stoic manone with a sly sense of humor, suited to "grinnin'
down a bear." Above all, Parker conveyed sincerity, the quality
Walt Disney so valued in his animators.
It's a lingering mystery as to why Disney didn't recognize Parker's
worth but instead cast him in a series of misconceived or secondary
rolesin support of Mouseketeers in one weak film, as an unsympathetic
hero overshadowed by antique trains in another, and so on. There
may be a clue in the casting of Jeff York as Mike Fink in two followup
Crockett episodes in Disneyland's second season.
TV was still young then, but York fit a rapidly hardening mold,
that of the aggressive, one-note comedian who relies on sheer brass
to snag the attention of viewers who are watching the set with only
half an eye. Through this casting of a much louder, cruder actor
opposite Parker, Disney and his director, Norman Fostera veteran
of TV and low-budget moviesinvited their viewers to regard
Parker not as strong and quiet, but as passive. Perhaps that's what
they thought of him themselves, even though his performances in
the first season's shows should have told them otherwise.
never worked with a director of real talent, and he never had the
movie career that might have been hisbut he has enjoyed great
success otherwise. He starred for six years (1964-70) in the Daniel
Boone TV show before leaving show business to pursue a career
as a real estate developer and hotel owner in Santa Barbara. For
the last fifteen years or so, he has also been the proprietor of
a winery that has made "Fess Parker" a highly regarded
label among oenophiles (to learn more, visit www.fessparker.com).
He is now 80 years old, but still robust and imposing, as you can
see from the accompanying photo of him, taken last year with visitors
(my wife, Phyllis, and her parents, Ida and Vernon Mathews) to his
hotel in Los Olivos, California.
The loss is not his, but ours. To cite a role that Walt Disney
barred Parker from pursuing, consider the Don Murray character in
Bus Stop. Murray's fine performance is actually a little
scaryit's as if his character were bipolar, on an extended
manic high. It's easy to imagine that Parker would have been better
in the partwarmer, and far more naïve than crazy. And
if Parker had not been foreclosed from trying to claim a place in
the John Ford stock company, well
how much better some of the
last Ford movies would be if Ford had been able to rely not just
on older stars like John Wayne and James Stewart, but on a younger
actor of the same stripe.
I first met Fess Parker in 1988, when I interviewed him for a business
magazine. Our most recent interviewspart of the research for
my Walt Disney biographybegan on September 26, 2003, on the
patio of Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn at Los Olivos,and continued
by telephone on January 6 and February 3, 2004. Parker reviewed
and approved this composite transcript.
Barrier: You were, as I recall, the first adult actor that
Walt Disney signed to a long-term contract, so you have a particular
significance in his work in live action. I want to get some sense
from you of what it was like to work for Walt Disney in his role
as a live-action filmmaker. One thing that really intrigued me was
what you mentioned in a Los Angeles Times interview in 2002,
that you left Disney because he turned down the opportunity for
you to be lent out to John Ford for The Searchers ,
with John Wayne. I was kind of shocked by that, because I thought
it would have been a perfect matchup. Why did he turn down that
Parker: Actually, it was what happened after that [that
led to Parker's leaving Disney]. I was signed for 350 dollars a
week, and by the time I was in my second year I may have been [up
to] 500 dollars, I don't know. But I was still modestly paid. They
had sent me all over the world and exploited me in every way possible,
and I'd done everything I could for the opportunity. I wasn't consulted
about The Searchers. I was en route with Jeffrey Hunter,
who played the role [of Martin Pawley in The Searchers],
and Walt Disney, on the way to Clayton, Georgia, for our locations
for The Great Locomotive Chase . The conversation turned
to Jeff's greatest experience of his life, which he described as
[working in] The Searchers. Walt Disney turned to mewe
were sitting in the back seatand he said, "They wanted
you for that." I was a newcomer, but I realized even then that
you don't get too many shots, and I'd already been heavily exposed
in one dimension. Then the movie that I was cast in, The Great
Locomotive Chasethere was more tender loving care of the
locomotives than of their live asset.
To put it simply, Walt Disney was unconcerned; he had so many things
on his plate. I have no complaints. He always gave me opportunities
to talk to him. But that one went by the board, and then the next
one that came up was Bus Stop . I have a book that
I went out and bought, the play Bus Stop. I took it to his
office and I said, "I'd like to work in this picture."
In the book I have his inter-office memo, with brown, crumbling
edgesWalt Disney Productions, Inter-Office Communications,
February 23, 1956. To Fess Parker from Walt Disney. "I am returning
your copy of Bus Stop. Personally, I do not think that this
is a good part for you, and what with present commitments that will
carry you into September, I do not believe you ought to consider
any outside things until after that time." And Don Murray,
a friend of mine who lives out here in Santa Barbarathe idea
that it was not a good opportunity is really kind of weird, because
Don was able to do it so well [playing opposite Marilyn Monroe]
that he got an Academy Award nomination. I don't know if I would
have been able to have an equal amount of success, but I sure would
have liked to try it.
Barrier: Were you under contract to Walt personally in the
beginning? I know there were such arrangements back in those days.
Parker: Yes, the first two years of the contract I was under
personal contract to him. Then I changed agents, and my agent negotiated
a new contract for me, and Walt didn't want to pay it. So he put
me with the studio, a new seven-year contract. Two years into that
contract, I'm being cast as sort of an auxiliary character, second
billed. In Old Yeller , I'm at the beginning and the
end. The next thing, they introduced [James MacArthur, in The
Light in the Forest, 1958], so I'm still in doldrums
there. Basically, I just don't think they understood that if they
wanted to extract the maximum value out of me, they had to do a
little thinking about it, and they weren't thinking.
Then they cast me in a picture called Tonka . I've
never [even] seen it advertised. Sal Mineo was in it. I said, "Who's
Sal Mineo?" "Well, he's a young actor." "OK,
let me see the script." I still remember this, I was so shocked.
"My name is Captain James Keogh, and this is the story of my
horse Tonka." Over the titles. On the back end, page 95, five
pages, I'm killed. I went to Walt and I said, "Are you going
to star me in this picture?" "Oh, yes." I said, "I
think that's dishonest. I haven't got anything to work with. So
If I'd been the only thing on his mind, or if he'd paid more attention
to the circumstancebut by this time, he had people doing work
that he didn't want to do. So we disagreed. I said, "I'm not
going to do this picture," so they put me on suspension. There
was more talk between my agent and the studio, and I believed, when
I went back, that I was not going to be required to do that picture.
But I found that nothing had changed. So I said, "I'm sorry,
I'm not going to do the picture." Any other studio, if it mattered,
they would just put you on suspension until they were ready to use
you again. But in this case, I never said to the studio, "I
have no interest in the five years left on my contract." It
was just sort of understood, and I left, and that was the end of
Barrier: Do you think they had run out of ideas for how
they wanted to use you, and they were content to let you go? Of
course, you wanted to leave
Parker: No, I wasn't intent on leaving, at all. I had five
years to go on a contract. I'm sure, from their side, they thought
they were paying me a lot of money, but considering the work I'd
done for them in the beginningnot just the film opportunities
they gave me, because that was my obligation, but I went all over
the world for that company and worked like a dog because I thought
I had a vested interest in the merchandise and it was worth working
Barrier: So when you turned down Tonka and went on
suspension and then came back, you expected that they would offer
you another role, and you wanted them to.
Parker: Yes, and I can't understand it, even to this day.
I talked to someone who'd seen TonkaI've never seen
itand I [would have] had a brief message over the title and
four or five pages [of the script].
Barrier: It's not a big part [Keogh is played in the film
by Philip Carey]. You would have been in support of Sal Mineo. But
this is what I want to get clear: it sounds as if it was more Disney's
preference than yours that you leave the studio.
Parker: I had an agent who was representing me, and I don't
really know what the conversation was. It kind of got down to not
a suspension but "do it or else." I felt that I was right
and that I had to do what I thought was right. I didn't want to
go back to where I'd been.
Barrier: Walt treasured his great animators, who were in
effect the actors in his animated films. It's baffling to me that
he wouldn't have had some of the same feeling about the most important
actors in his live-action films, particularly people who had shown
they could deliver for him the way you had. I don't get it.
Parker: I don't, either. I didn't understand it. I'd only
been in films for three years, so I wasn't a past master of understanding
where I was, but I did understand that without the part, you've
got no place to go.
After Disney, I went directly to Paramount, and I was there for
four years, from '58 to '62. Then in '63, I did thirty episodes
of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Daniel Boone
show took me to '70. I turned down a television series at Universal
[McCloud] that Dennis Weaver did a great job with; I would
never have pulled it off like he did. I still had ideas that maybe
somewhere I'd get another shot [at feature films]. Plus my family
was growing up[doing another TV series] just wasn't attractive
I went to Warner Bros. the last three years that I received a paycheck
from the industry. I did a pilot film; that was the only thing I
did in three years. It wasn't because I was turning things down,
it was just that nothing happened. I don't even know why they had
me there. I had a big dressing room, a secretary, a limo any time
I wanted it. I lived in Santa Barbara, so when I had business in
L.A. it was nice to have the limo meet me at the airport. But it
didn't make any sense.
Barrier: This Searchers thing is so intriguingI
think of you playing against John Wayne, and I think of the two
of you being generally the same sort of actor. You use aspects of
your own personalities to make the characters you're playing more
Parker: Absolutely. I'm also the first to say that accolades
for the finest actors in films are all the same. Some guys change
their clothes, but it's still Marlon Brando. Paul Newman is Paul
Newman. The force of these individual personalities is what the
business is about. How many great actors are there, in film? You
may laugh when I say this, but I think Gary Cooper was one of the
greatest actors ever in films. Look at the range of things that
Barrier: I was going through the directors' credits on the
films you appeared in at Disney, like Norman Foster on the Davy
Crockett series and the various people who directed the feature
Parker: I want to tell you, there was not one of them on
an A list.
Foster, frankly, tried to get rid of me [during the filming of the
first Davy Crockett show]. We didn't have any dailies to look at,
and I wasn't privy to that, anyway. They simply couldn't get them
back from Hollywood to where we were. Finally, they did. Foster
invited the whole company to look at them, and on the way out of
the theater, he said, "You're coming along." I said, "Well,
thank you, Norman." Then it was a little better. But he had
been placed in an awkward position. He went off to Mexico to cast
for Zorro and to find locations, only to come back and find, oh,
no, we're not doing Zorro, we're doing Davy Crockett, and here's
your boy. He felt a little out of the loop.
Barrier: Why do you think Walt never hired strong directors?
Parker: He wanted the last word. He didn't want anybody
to challenge him. When we did Great Locomotive Chase, he
put a producer in place who had never produced, Larry Watkin [a
screenwriter for such Disney features as Treasure Island
and The Story of Robin Hood]. The director was a man who
had been an Academy Award[-winning] film editor, [Francis D.] Lyon
was his name. He had put together The Cult of the Cobra 
at Universal and pasted together the newsreels of Bob Mathias to
make The Bob Mathias Story , and those were his credits
coming into making this picture at a distant location, with some
extremely difficult logistics, and with a screenplaywhen I
had a chance, I said to Walt, "This screenplay just doesn't
feel quite right." Historically, the character [the Union spy
James J. Andrews, played by Parker] was significant, but from a
storytelling point, everybody had to root for Jeff Hunter [who played
a Confederate railroad conductor pursuing his stolen train] to catch
us, because there wasn't any story otherwise. So, every move turned
out to be somewhat less than it might have. The industry was waiting
to see if I could produce another reasonably successful picture,
and I didn't do much.
Barrier: Of course, there are cases where producers like
Walt were exercising the kind of control that really made the films
their own, but at the time you were working in the feature films,
he was wrapped up in Disneyland and the TV show. He couldn't have
been giving detailed attention to the films.
Parker: No, he was just satisfied with what he was seeing.
Barrier: How much do you remember of Walt being present?
You mentioned his going down to Georgia for The Great Locomotive
Parker: He wasn't there very long. He wasn't a guy to hang
around the set. He'd come and sit down if we were in the studio,
for a little while.
Barrier: Of course, the last episode of Davy Crockett was
shot at the studio, on the sound stage, instead of on location.
Parker: I don't remember him on the set at all for that.
I'm sure he was, but I just don't remember it.
Barrier: Even though he was keeping the final word and he
was working through these directors who weren't on the A list, still,
he wasn't really shaping the films. That seems so sad. I keep thinking,
if he'd been willing to hire a John Ford
Parker: More than that. Several studios wanted to buy into
my contract, so he could have farmed me out, where possibly I would
have gotten some different things to do. I have no idea how they
would have come out; when you're under contract, you're under contract.
At least there would have been some variety.
Barrier: Do you think he was concerned, as with Bus Stop,
that you might appear in a film
Parker: He seemed to care, but I don't think he really understood
it. Just the human factor, [the way] an actor [feels toward] someone
holding your contract. That was shared, I think, not only by Walt
but by Bill Anderson. He'd been a businessman before he came to
be an administrator [at the Disney studio]. Card Walker, who rose
to heights therethey weren't picture people. It all seemed
to be meat and potatoes.
Barrier: You were just an employee.
Barrier: I saw [Harrison] "Buzz" Price the other
day, and he said he was always aware that the people who worked
for Walt seemed to be scared to death of him. He never understood
why, but there was one time when he felt that Walt treated him like
an employee, and basically reamed him out in front of half a dozen
important people. Was there ever a situation when you felt Walt
treated you that way?
Barrier: He never put you down in front of other people.
Parker: No. His secretary [Lucille Martin] is still at the
studio. I used to stop by her desk and say, "I'd like to say
hello to Mr. Disney, is this an opportune time?" I'd go in,
and Walt might be talking to some people, [but he would say], "Have
a seat, and when I get through here we'll talk." I don't remember
his ever not being able to see me. Same way with Roy Disney and
the chief legal counsel, Gunther Lessing. Those guys were smoking
cigars, and Gunther was rolling his. We'd just sit and shoot the
bull. I enjoyed being at the studio. It was very open, very pleasant,
other than what I've told you here.
Barrier: It seems so strange that they would be so open,
and yet so insensitive.
Parker: I don't know why I would engender that. [But considering
the demands on Walt's time,] any attention was remarkable under
the circumstances, even if it was flawed.
Barrier: I keep reading about the methods Disney used to
control films, the detailed storyboarding, which evidently the director
wasn't really in charge of. It was done at an earlier stage, so
the director would be confronted with these detailed storyboards
that dictated the staging and cutting of the film.
Parker: I knew they were doing that. I don't know that they
did it on each and every [film that Parker appeared in]. When we
did a picture called Westward Ho The Wagons! , we had
a veteran director who wore an eyeshade and carried the script around
in his hip pocket.
Barrier: That was Beaudine?
Parker: Yes, Bill Beaudine, wonderful old guy. He was terrific.
But he was used to shooting Leo Gorcey and those guys over at Monogram.
This was just a thing over at Disney. I don't know if he did any
more pictures after that. And where they got him, who thought this
was a great idea to follow up the Crockett thingsit sure wasn't
Bill Walsh, because Bill was a man of good taste. He knew the business.
Barrier: But he didn't have as much say over things?
Parker: Davy Crockett and Mickey Mouse Club were
his first great successes, so he was feeling his way there. But
you saw his choices later on, the tremendous successful things that
he wrote and produced.
Barrier: Robert Stevenson, I guess, was one director who
stood out more than the others.
Parker: Bob was very nice. In my little scene in Old
Yeller, I said, "You know, Bob, where I come from, a lot
of times when men of the area want to talk, they kind of hunker
down. I kind of see doing that in this scene." He said OK,
so he put the camera there, and Tommy Kirk hunkered down and we
had a little talk. And that was it.
Barrier: You must not have worked many days on that picture.
Parker: No, I didn't. Very, very few.
Barrier: Were there long stretches when you simply didn't have
anything to do when you were under contract with Disney?
Parker: Oh, yes.
Barrier: That must have been frustrating.
Parker: Well, you know what? I'm a happy spirit. I had a
sailboat and I went down and got on it. I didn't miss a day.
Barrier: You took advantage of the situation.
Parker: I did.
Barrier: I've heard that Buddy Ebsen was being seriously
considered for the role of Davy Crockett before they discovered
you. Did Buddy himself ever say anything about that to you? Had
the Disney people ever talked to him about playing Davy Crockett?
Parker: Buddy was in costume when I met him. Walt Disney
introduced me to him in the hallway of the studio administration
building. I actually saw a list of practically every male actor
in Hollywood that they had considered, looked at, some of them,
rejected them out of hand, I don't know. But it was a single-spaced
page, two columns of names that they had sort of run through the
hoops. My inclination is that yes, he was seriously considered for
Barrier: But he never thought he had it and then it was
taken away from him.
Parker: No, he would have said something, because we became
lifelong friends. He would have said something like, "You know,
Parker, you did something to me."
Barrier: You've mentioned your admiration for Gary Cooper,
which I share, and you've been compared to him. You were onscreen
with him in Springfield Rifle for a minute or so. What do
you remember about that experience, about working with Gary Cooper?
Did you carry something away from that that you were able to use
Parker: I had a chance to do that scene with him, and then
I hope I didn't make a pest of myself, but I hung around wherever
he was relaxing or in conversationI wasn't trying to eavesdrop
or anything. He was probably my favorite actor, among all the wonderful
Fondas and Stewarts and so on. I think the thing that separated
Cooper from most of the other actors, with the exception of Fonda,
was a sort of physical grace that he possessed. He broke his hip
many years earlier in a horse accident, and so it was hard for him
to ride. He required a horse that was pretty narrow. I don't know
if he was in pain, but whatever it was, he took care of it and handled
that horse work beautifully. I still have pictures of him in my
mind. He had a graceful way of spinning on his boot heels, and the
man had probably the most expressive hands of any actor. You might
think it's kind of peculiar to isolate items like those, but the
other part of Cooper, the intellectual, the actor, however you want
to describe him in his professionit was all there, he could
do comedy, drama, action. When he was Sergeant York that was one
thing, High Noon was another, and he just pulled it off.
He's probably the most underrated actor in my lifetime. I think
the others were probably recognizedcertainly Jimmy Stewart
was, and Fonda, for his versatility.
Fonda had the same kind of grace; it was a more shambling kind
of grace, if I can put it that way. I had the pleasure of spending
a number of weeks onstage with him. It was my first job, and I stood
in the wings of Mister Roberts and watched him night after
night do a scene that was tough to pull off on stage. It was a recognition
of what the crew had done in his behalf, and his technique, and
his reaching the emotional momentI know that it could not
always be the same, but it appeared to be the same, and had the
same effect. That was a great experience.
Barrier: I hadn't realized that you had done stage work.
Parker: I was in Mister Roberts the summer of 1951,
from June until September. We played the Geary or the Curran, I
can never remember which theater, in San Francisco, and the Biltmore
Theater in downtown L.A.; it's now a parking lot.
Barrier: I've always thought of screen acting as being in
many ways more difficult than stage acting, because you're shooting
things out of sequence. You may be shooting on location and you
step through a door, and a month later you're through the door and
inside, on a sound stage. I would think it would be very difficult
for an actor to perform in the sort of emotional arc I think you're
describing in Fonda's performance, where you rise to a climax and
your own feelings are built into the way this character is developing.
As someone who was mostly a screen actor but had some stage experience,
how did you compensate for the characteristics that screen acting
Parker: It's sort of like this: if you don't know anything
about what you're doing, and they tell you to pick up the anvilif
you really want to be there, you'll pick that anvil up, one way
or another. I didn't realize until later on how difficult it was.
An example is my first experience onscreen to speak a line. This
was my line: "You didn't say nothin' about there bein' no way
to get to it from here." That sounds simple, and I probably
can't repeat it again, but I waited for weeks to say that line.
In fact, the director turned to the first assistant and said, "Does
From that point on, I got jobs, and had more lines in No Room
for the Groom, and finally the very popular director Douglas
Sirk was doing a picture for Universal. I had a scene to do, some
very brief but key lines. It was in a saloon with a whole bunch
of extras and it involved a bit of tricky camera work, saying a
line and holding a newspaper in the precise location it needed to
be. Unfortunately, I probably held up the company for fifteen or
twenty minutes, which did not make me a more popular candidate for
future Universal Studios films. But that's the way it goes. When
you see an actor come in and deliver a short line, these guys are
working sometime without knowledge of the script. They're just kind
of briefed, and they come in and deliver. It's amazing.
Barrier: We were talking about John Wayne and about actors'
using aspects of their own personalities to make a character seem
more real, and I would guess that's particularly important in screen
acting. If you're doing a scene, and to a large extent you can play
yourselfassuming you know who you arethat would give
you a big head start.
Parker: I can tell you, a lot of times, actors that I've
known and I've worked with, they get into a character and they basically
try to stay in it till the job is over. It is a sort of mental discipline
and a concept that goes back to the days when you were playing in
the back yard. One day you wanted to be Clyde Beatty, and the next
day it was Buck Jones. You played them both equally well.
I watched The Searchers recently, and I thought John Wayne
was really outstanding in a lot of scenes. But The Shootist ,
his last picture, was life imitating art, because he played a dying
man, and he was in fact dying himself. Ron Howard, Hugh O'Brian,
Lauren Bacallall the people in that movie were just splendid.
Barrier: Speaking of The Searchers, I was thinking
about how you would have fit into that Martin Pawley role that Jeffrey
Parker: You know, my impression was, not nearly as well
as Jeff did.
Barrier: My feeling was that they would have had to rewrite
that role, because you're a stronger screen presence than he was.
You said that Jeff Hunter told you that working on that film was
the greatest experience of his life, working with John Ford, and
I'm wondering if you remember anything of what he said about what
made it so special.
Parker: His first words, of what made it so special, were,
"working with John Ford." For most young actors in those
days, to have John Ford's interest was a fantastic thing. John Ford
was such a dominant man in his arena, and at a time when the films
were most popular that he was making, his company of actors were
really family. If there was ever anything specific or even general
that he could do for those people, he did it. So Jeff was admitted
to the great circle. I don't think that he ever had another chance
to work with Ford, but he had done it in a very important picture.
[Hunter actually had important roles in two more Ford films, The
Last Hurrah (1958) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960).]
Barrier: Of course, Ford was an icon among directors then,
but what was it, for an actor, that made working with Ford so special?
What did he bring to an actor, or ask of an actor, that was beyond
what an actor would get from an ordinary director?
Parker: I can't remember anything that Jeff said specifically,
but my hunch is that it was sort of like going to school and somebody
says, "You better not get in his or her class." If you're
in there, you're going to have to work extremely hard, and there's
no slack. Either you cut it or you don't. Ford was so strong a person
and so much of an enigmafirst of all, he was hiding behind
those glasses, and [one lens was opaque]. His handkerchief habit,
of chewing on the handkerchief. And he wasn't social, by any means.
I think the fact that you were going to work for him meant that
you were at your highest level of attention. Whatever he told you
to do, you'd better do it right, or you would suffer humiliation
until you got it right. He was unmerciful with John Wayne, Ward
Bond, you name it. It was a badge of honor to have worked with the
old man. He was several people in his lifetime, really. Can you
imagine him as a linebacker? His nickname in high school was "Bull."
At the stage that I began to observe him, he wasn't a physical man,
but he had been.
Barrier: So you actually had some personal contact with
Parker: Oh, yes. Before The Searchers was made, I
went one evening to the apartment of Olive Carey, the widow of Harry
Carey and Dobe Carey's [Harry Carey, Jr.] mother. This was an evening
that was primarily Ford family people. It was an open house and
a buffet, and there were musicians playing in the kitchen and guitars
and western music and so forth. I listened to the music for a while,
and my girlfriend, Marcella, was in the front, with Olive in the
living room, with the ladies, so finally I decided to help myself
to some of the beans and chili and whatever was on the table. As
I turned away from the table, Ford was standing right beside me.
He took my plate, took my fork, stuffed it into the food, popped
it into his mouth a couple of times, stuck the fork back in, and
turned around and walked off. I don't know how far down my chin
can go, but it must have been at its optimum position. Then I went
into the kitchen, and I was just listening to the music, leaning
up against the cabinet, and he came in and stood beside me. That
made me nervous. Then he took his elbow and jabbed it into my ribs.
I turned and looked at himI don't know what expression was
on my face, but I couldn't believe it. I decided to just ignore
it, and he did it again. I just kind of walked away from him and
went back in the other room. What in the world can you imagine that
he was after? It's still one of my funniest experiences in the film
Barrier: When did this happen?
Parker: I had just finished Westward Ho the Wagons!,
which was the first picture Disney plopped me into. That was a picture
they couldn't decide if it was for television or a movie theater.
It had Mickey Mouse Club members in it.
Barrier: And this was before Ford offered you the role in
Parker: Yes. I didn't know much about him. I certainly had
seen his movies. Liz Whitney, the wife of the producer, had come
out on the set, and I had met her. Apparently, the Whitneys requested
me, or approved me, or something, but I didn't realize the significance
of that visit until a long time later.
Barrier: I wonder why Ford would not have pursued you for
Parker: My feeling is that if he thought that you didn't
want to work with him, had any inkling of that, he wasn't the kind
of guy to give you much. I went to him when they were going to make
Horse Soldiers , I called on him. He was officing at
Batjac [John Wayne's production company], and I went over and said,
"I'd like to speak to Mr. Ford if he has a moment." I
was shown in, and we chatted a few minutes, and I said, "Well,
Mr. Ford, I know you're busy, but I was just wondering if there's
anything in the film I could do for you." He said, "Well,
you know, doggone it, I just hired a guy, his name is
He went through a bunch of sounds that finally led me to say, "Are
you thinking of William Holden?" He said, "It's William
Holden." He had more fun than anybody. So there was nothing
for me in the picture; Bill Holden had beaten me to the part.
Barrier: Looking back to Them! , you're very
good in your little part in that picture, but you're not Davy Crockett,
and I wonder if you knew what it was about your performance in that
picture that led Walt or whoever it was to say, "This is the
guy we want."
Parker: I really don't know. I think maybe the accent, the
unsophisticated sort of appearance. It was determined by one of
the casting directors who called me. I was on location, making a
film for the Navy medical department on battle fatigue, in southern
California at Camp Pendleton or someplace, and the casting man called
me. He said, "You're a featured player, and I know that you
don't want to do day work, but I have a part that I think would
be good for you." I said, "If you think it would be good
for me, I'll do it." I didn't know what it was. And sure enough,
I had no idea how good it would be. If Walt had taken a phone call
or lit a cigarette or sneezed, I wouldn't be talking to you today.
Barrier: And Walt himself was the one who saw you and singled
Parker: Yes, he said, "Who's that?" It wasn't
as if he was screening the film to find anybody. I think he was
looking at Jim Arness as a possibility, but I think he got interested
in the little story, and just happened to stay long enough to see
Barrier: You've mentioned Bill Walsh very favorably, and
I was wondering what you could tell me about him, as somebody you
worked with and whose work you admired.
Parker: Bill was an orphan and was raised in Cincinnati,
in an orphanage. Then he got a chance to go to a junior college
or something there. Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay came through
town with a theatrical company, and he was interested in that, and
went down and offered to help on the setup and so forth. By the
time they finished their engagement in Cincinnati, they were interested
in Bill and invited him to come along with them. That's how he got
out into show business. He did a lot of things before he became
a producer; he worked as a publicist for a firm called Maggie Ettinger,
one of the top Hollywood firms. Then, his sense of humor and his
ability to write led him to be one of the writers for the Edgar
Bergen show. The years went by, and somehow or other he got connected
with Disney. Anyway, Walt Disney told him he wanted him to produce
a movieI think it was The Littlest Outlaw. He told
Walt, "I don't know if I can do this," and Walt said,
"Well, there's no time like now to find out." Bill did
a nice job on it, and when Davy Crockett came along, shortly thereafter,
he made him the producer.
He was the all-time dollar producer, until Star Wars, in
motion-picture history. His pictures were the mainframe, or the
guts, or anything you want to say about the Walt Disney film successes
from the middle fifties [until the late sixties]. He was my best
man at my wedding, and his wife stood up with my wife. Bill was
a very complex man, and everybody that knew him felt attached to
him. There's not that many of us any more, but when there were more,
whenever we'd be together a lot of our conversation would be about
Bill Walsh, because he was still fascinating to all of us.
Barrier: Of course, he died prematurely, and I've heard
references to how much stress he was under, in the position he was
in, being in many respects Walt's right-hand man in that period.
It was a hard life for him. Is that what you observed?
Parker: When Bill was really frustrated, this was the way
he expressed it: "Hoo, boy!" [in an exasperated tone]
That was about it.
Barrier: That was brought on by Walt?
Parker: I used to hear Bill say, "Walt came in in his
bear suit today." They were quite a team, and they worked extremely
well together. There were other Disney producers, but none of them
approached Bill's success, picture after picture.
Barrier: I was doing some time comparisons, and I realized
that first Davy Crockett show, which had such a tremendous impact,
aired on December 15, 1954, exactly a week before 20,000 Leagues
under the Sea opened. That was Walt's first big live-action
picture, with real movie stars in it and a very large budget for
the time, and it was a successful picture. But evidently Kirk Douglas
was not the easiest person to get along with
Parker: I believe that's an understatement.
Barrier: Douglas himself wrote in his autobiography that
he wound up suing Walt because he didn't like Walt's using some
footage of him and his sons on Walt's train in his backyard on the
Disney TV show. Clearly, the impact of the Crockett show was your
impactpeople were responding to you in that title role, more
than anything else about the programand, as I've said, it
has puzzled me that Walt didn't take advantage of your movie-star
qualities in a way that would have made sense for both him and you.
I wondered if some of his experiences in dealing with Kirk Douglas
and 20,000 Leagues had some backlash on you. Did you ever
have any hints of that?
Parker: No, I didn't. Your question about why they didn't
give me strong materialfrankly, I think attention was split
between the development of Disneyland, which was still in its infancy,
[and TV and movies]. Walt hadn't expected television to have the
impact that it did. I don't know why he didn't, but none of us did,
as far as I know. Then they decided that if their merchandising
program was a log fire, they were just going to throw another log
on, and that was me. They sent me all over the country.
The merchandise thing didn't quite work out as advertised. Walt
had given me 10 percent of Walt Disney Davy Crockett merchandise,
but then they had run into legal problems because they didn't have
the [exclusive] rights to [the Davy Crockett name]. The rest of
the world decided, forget the rights, we're going to make it, sue
me. There were hundreds of products. So the followup was very weak.
Westward Ho the Wagons! was not a good presentation. I was
very grateful for the paycheck and the opportunity, butI hate
to say thisI was not sufficiently understanding [of] the business
I was in. If you grab the brass ring once in a career, that's wonderful.
If you grab that brass ring and do some followup and some growth
in the industry, that's really what everybody hopes for. I guess
when I saw that I was just going to sort of do the same thing all
the time, I bought a sailboat and went sailing. When it was time
to work, I'd come back and do that.
Barrier: At the time they put you into Westward Ho the
Wagons!, was it up in the air as to whether it would be for
theaters or TV, or did they start with the idea that it would be
Parker: They couldn't make up their minds exactly what they
wanted to do with it. Bill Beaudine was a fine old gentleman, but,
basically, he wasn't much help. He just set the scenes up and we
shot them, and that was that. Walt never had strong people; he didn't
want any strong people.
Barrier: I get the impression that a lot of the directors
at Disney were basically mechanical directors whose real skill was
in setting things up so that scenes worked on the screen and the
actors didn't get in each other's way.
Parker: I think Walt was a counter-puncher. My impression
is that he wanted to reserve the right to counter-punch with any
effort that showed up in the screening room. He obviously had a
great sense of story, in things he was interested in, and was quite
a fine actor, if you listen to the people who worked closely with
him. But I saw people come to the studio, people he'd hired to do
huge, difficult projects, who had never done a simple project. Larry
Watkin, the producer of The Great Locomotive Chase, [is a
good example]. There were two companies shooting at the same time
on a distant location. Peter Ellenshaw, the artist, was directing
a second-unit company. He had certain things that he had to do from
a matte standpoint, so he was out there with a second unit.
Barrier: Making sure that they were shooting things so that
he would be able to put the mattes in.
Parker: Yes. This was a huge undertaking. A narrow-gauge
railroadand let's just say that when you run a horse through
a scene, it's pretty easy to turn around and do it again. But when
you've got a train, it's a little more complicated. It was a pretty
dull picture. As a matter of fact, it was my Waterloo, I think.
If I thought of myself as an arrow, I'd stopped heading up and started
heading down with that picture. I was put in a role of being pursued
and caught and hung.
Barrier: It flabbergasted me when I thought about that.
Here's their new star, and they have him hung at the end. I can't
imagine what the thinking was that led to your being cast in that
part in the first place.
Parker: I had a friend, now deceased, whose name was Burt
Kennedy. Burt was a writer and director and a close friend of mine
at the time. I showed him the script, and he said, "Oh, my
God! This has got a lot of problems." He spoke to some of the
things that we've alluded to here, relative to the film. I didn't
speak to Mr. Disney about it until we were on location, or on the
way to location, somewhere before we actually started to shoot,
and I mentioned something about the script, and he said, "No,
this is what we're going to do." No discussion. And it was
too late; he was right about that.
When I did Davy Crockett, I had an opportunity that I didn't understand.
And that was [predictable], because things got a little unique.
Burt Kennedy came to me and said, "Fess, you need me to be
your manager. And I'm willing to do that." I thought about
it, and I didn't know what he meant, really. I didn't quite understand
the role that he foresaw. It's interesting, the last conversation
I had with him before he died [in 2001], I went down to his birthday
party, at his house in the Valley, and he said to me something like,
"We should have made a picture." I said, "Well, Burt,
I agree, but we'll probably have to put it off until we're on a
bigger stage." But he knew what my strengths and weaknesses
were, because we had been friends from the day I first worked in
films. I'd met him in the fall of 1950, when I was going to school
at USC, and his girlfriend had a little sister that I became acquainted
with. That's how I met Burt. Later, I moved to an area that was
very close to where he lived, and we used to spend the mornings
drinking coffee and reading the Daily Variety and talking
about pictures and directors and so forth. He was very astute. He
was born in a trunk; his family was in vaudeville.
Barrier: You've mentioned that you were under personal contract
to Walt. Was that a typical arrangement?
Parker: As far as I know, I was the only person he ever
put under [personal] contract.
Barrier: Why did he do that, as opposed to putting you under
contract to the studio?
Parker: I really don't know. And when I asked for 10 percent
of the Walt Disney's Davy Crockett merchandise, he gave it to me.
Barrier: But that didn't translate into much money.
Parker: No, it did not. When I asked for more money, the
late Ray Stark was my agent. So there was the contract I had with
Walt, and then a new contract. Things were changed and deals were
struck in my behalf that I think basically eliminated their requirement
to pay me that 10 percent. I really wasn't aware of it at the time,
or if I was, I can't remember it. My background in the film business
was very shallow. I was playing very small parts; they were getting
better, but they were small parts. I wasn't immersed in the culture.
Barrier: So you simply didn't have the background to be
fully aware of all the subtleties that were involved in such negotiations.
Parker: No, but it's not a big deal. I was out on my sailboat,
and I wasn't thinking about it too much. I can't buy back that time;
I enjoyed it.
Barrier: You worked with Michael Curtiz on The Hangman
 after you left Disney, and I guess the other two major films
you made at Paramount were The Jayhawkers  and Hell
Is for Heroes . The Jayhawkers is historically
kind of crazy, but you're awfully good in it.
Parker: It was hard to understand that picture. Mel Frank
was basically a writer-producer, and he finally decided he wanted
to direct the film. We had a man on the set, constantly, who was
his mentor and really was directing behind the scenes. I'm trying
to think of his name. He should be listed somewhere [in the screen
credits] as an advisor, or something.
Barrier: You were working not only with stronger directors
than you had at Disney but also with stronger actors opposite you.
People like Jeff Chandler and Steve McQueen. When you were making
those later features, what stands out in your mind as being most
different from your work at Disney?
Parker: It was similar to Disney in that Y. Frank Freeman
owned Paramount, and he used to invite me in, and we'd sit and talk.
The old gentleman who was about 90 years old, Adolph Zukor, would
be sitting around during these conversations. Clearly, they saw
me as in sort of the Dean Martin role, playing the second man. Which
was OK; that was fine for me. I enjoyed Robert Taylor and Jeff,
and I found that working with Steve McQueen was the most interesting.
I didn't have a lot [of scenes] with him, but I was very comfortable.
He seemed to always work within himself, but in my brief scenes
with him I felt that we [worked well together]. With Jeff Chandler,
bless his heart, we went six, seven, eight takes every scene that
we were together. During the fight that we did in the bar, he nailed
me with a punch and I had to go get a couple of stitches over my
eye. I didn't realize what great pain he was in. Shortly after that,
he had this operation; his back, evidently, was really bad. [Chandler
died after back surgery in 1961.]
I tend to be fairly steady with dialogue. Finally we came to a
Friday night, everybody was trying to leave for Palm Springs or
wherever they go, and we were doing this scene, and all of a sudden
I had a problem. We probably did twelve or thirteen takes, and the
tension gets greater and greater when you get into that circumstance.
Jeff was gleeful: "You son of a bitch! You finally blew it!"
We had a good time. Norman Panama [Melvin Frank's co-producer] had
us to his home for dinner, and Jeff was there with Esther Williams,
and she made quite an impression.
Barrier: You didn't make that many films with Paramount
Parker: No, that was it, in four years.
Barrier: It seems strange, again, that they didn't put you
in more things. Was it because westerns were petering out at that
point, and you seemed like a natural western star?
Parker: I think something was happening in the ownership.
I always suspected that Y. Frank Freeman's son was the person who
urged his dad to buy his company. I got the feeling that the movie
side of the business kind of went onMr. Freeman approved things,
obviously, but by the time I got there, he was not a young man.
I think they were just kind of running it as a business, which is
sort of unusual. With Hell Is for Heroes, all of a sudden
there was an edict that there would be one or two more days, and
that's it. So we didn't finish the script. My scenes that made sense
for me to be in the movie were never shot. All of my gut-impact
material was at the end of the picture, with incoming troops relieving
our group. There was a nice tie-up.
Barrier: The film does end abruptly. I hadn't really thought
about that, but it does come to a stop quicker than you expect it
Parker: That was the business side of it: no more money
in this film.
Barrier: Talking about the directors, though, like Siegel
and Curtizon the evidence of their films, they were much stronger
directors than the people you worked with at Disney. What difference
did you feel, as an actor, in working with directors like these?
Parker: There wasn't any real difference except in the case
of Mel Frank, with the man who was constantly observing the scenes.
Curtiz was surprisingly easy to get along with. He had such a reputation
as a character, but there were no problems. Tina Louise was with
Robert Taylor, and Robert Taylor was a very pleasant man. He had
a reserve about him, but he wasn't unfriendly, he was just sort
of a man who was smoking himself to death.
Barrier: What about Don Siegel? I read somewhere recently
about Hell for Heroes that some of the actors had trouble
taking it seriously.
Parker: Don Siegel seemed to me to have the old Hollywood
mantra down: stick with the money [that is, give the most attention
to the highest-paid stars]. He was competent, but as far as his
giving me any sort of directions or instructions or help as a director,
none. And that's usually the case. There are some people who do
try to lead or suggest or something, but most of the time, if the
scene works, the good people let you bring what you bring. And if
it's obviously wrong, they'll tell you.
Barrier: So you never really had the chance to work with
Parker: I'll be honest with you. I don't think I was ever
challenged. I just kind of walked through everything.
Barrier: It has always seemed to me that there was a lot
more you could have done if somebody had been smart enough to ask
you to do it.
Parker: I wanted to do something that would move me along
and mature me in the business, but at a certain pointwhen
I went into Daniel Boone, I felt that the opportunities that
lay out there in the future [would grow out of] that show, that
there was little that I could expect [from continuing to work in
feature films], so I just decided to leave.
Barrier: Did you have any contact with Walt after leaving
the Disney studio?
Parker: I saw Walt Disney pretty much as a father figure,
and I hated parting on the basis that I did. When I ended up doing
Daniel Boone, there was an NBC affiliates' meeting at the
Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, and there was a cocktail party prior
to the dinner. NBC wanted The Further Adventures of Davy Crockett,
which I thought I had to consider, because I had a family by that
time. Walt had the number one show on NBC, and he said, "No,
I own five one-hour films of Davy Crockett, with Fess in them, and
I don't want to see that." NBC had that frontier mode in mind,
so they said they'd like to have me consider Daniel Boone.
Maybe I'm the first guy in the actors' witness protection program.
I put on the cap, and I said, "My name is Daniel Boone, and
this is my wife, and my children. I live in Boonesborough, a far
piece from here." Well, thankfully, the American public sees
entertainment for what it is, it's entertainment, it's not life,
so we were able to spend six years on it.
Barrier: On the Disney TV show around 1960, there was a
Daniel Boone series with Dewey Martin
Parker: A good friend of mine.
Barrier: I remember looking at this and thinking that it
was something that should have had Fess Parker cast in the role.
I didn't think Dewey Martin was convincing as a frontiersman. Was
that something that was being talked about before you left?
Parker: No, no.
Barrier: So did you have an encounter with Walt at this
affiliates' meeting after you had undertaken to do Daniel Boone?
Parker: Yes, the pilot had been picked up, I was going to
go on the air with Daniel Boone, and there was a cocktail
party. I didn't know he was in the room. I was standing talking
to someone, and I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned
around, and it was Walt. He said, "I just wanted to wish you
well on your new series. Say hello to Marcella." I said, "Is
Mrs. Disney with you?" He said, "Yes, she's right over
there." I said, "I'd like to go over and say hello to
her." And I did. To me, that was like reconciling with my father,
in a way.
Barrier: Was that the first time you'd seen him since you
left the studio?
Barrier: Did you ever see him again, or was that the only
time you saw him?
Parker: That was the only time I ever saw him.
Barrier: Did you ever have any contact with him by letter
Parker: I don't think so. I don't recall if I did. I don't
know on what basis I would have had a [telephone] conversation with
Barrier: Speaking of Walt's not wanting you to be Davy Crockett
on that NBC show, there was this Bob Hope movie called Alias
Jesse James  in which you appear uncredited in one scene.
You're not identified as Davy Crockett, but you're clearly supposed
to be Davy.
Parker: That was when I was over at Paramount. Bob Hope
gave me a diesel engine for that moment. I guess he thought it would
be good for my sailboat, or something. My agent had purchased the
African Queen [the boat used in that movie] and made it into a little
yacht. I never realized, until maybe right now, that the fact that
I got a diesel engine was kind of suggested by my agent, who probably
knew that I didn't have any place to put that engine. So it ended
up in the African Queen.
[Posted December 20, 2004; corrected December 23, 2004]