By Ken Tucker
Updated March 19, 2010 at 04:01 AM EDT

Fess Parker, best known for portraying Davy Crockett, “king of the wild frontier,” died on Thursday of natural causes, according to The Associated Press. He was 85. He died on the 84th birthday of his wife of 50 years, Marcella.

In his prime, Parker was a big, rangy man who grew up in a small farm in Texas; his voice retained a warm Texas twang. He shot to a singular pop-culture fame in 1954, when Walt Disney’s Disneyland series broadcast “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter.” With his buckskin jacket, long rifle, slow drawl, and

his coonskin cap, Parker was an immediate sensation. Kids could not get enough of his unique mixture of warmth, toughness, humor, and taciturn wisdom. Parker was only 29 when he filmed his first Crockett adventure, but he seemed like a very wise man.

Here’s the all-important Davy Crockett theme song, which became a 13-week, number-one hit single as recorded by vocalist Bill Hayes:

Kids really couldn’t get enough of that coonskin cap. They sold

in the millions, an odd fad for a kid-America that had always been more interested in cowboy hats and baseball caps.

The Crockett tales were very loosely based on the real-life Crockett, replete with colorful villains such as Mike Fink, the glowering, slobbo riverboat keelhauler. Buddy Ebsen, the future Barnaby Jones, played Davy’s sidekick, George Russel.

Disney had filmed three of these prototypical TV-movies and killed off the character in the last of them, at the Battle of the Alamo, before the first one aired. Due to the tumultuous response of children and adults across the land, ol’ Davy had to be miraculously revived for a further series.

Parker repeated his TV success a second time, playing another real-life frontiersman in the title role of Daniel Boone, from 1964 to 1970. Parker had wanted to do a Crockett series, but

Disney wouldn’t grant him the rights. So Parker’s Daniel Boone wore… a coonskin cap. Once again, never underestimate the power of a catchy theme song:

There had been other Western TV heroes before him, such as The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy. But Fess Parker conveyed something new at the time: He invested Crockett with an authenticity that struck a chord in the national consciousness.

It was this distinctively American mixture: authenticity that could be marketed, so that kids could watch Davy and, donning their coonskin caps, be Davy, that made Parker a crucial figure in baby-boomer TV culture.

As the once-proud owner of a coonskin cap (and you can bet I wish I still had it), I doff it symbolically to Mr. Parker.

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