Birth and Death
The rejuvenating effects of springtime are all around us. New growth on the bushes and trees can be seen all over, the blossoms on my wife’s newly planted rose bushes are starting to open now and we’re very excited about that. The grass is sparkling bright green, the air crispy and clean. As they say, spring is a time for rebirth. Spring is a youthful season, an awakening period for nature. But as the young enter, the old depart. That’s how it works. Such is life.
With this coming of spring, three early television stars have passed away. As a child of ’50s and ’60s TV I remember them well. Fess Parker, Peter Graves, and Robert Culp all played television heroes during the heyday of television heroes.
Robert Culp had been a television favorite for fifty years, starting with the western series Trackdown in 1957. He was best known for I Spy (1965-68) in which he played secret agent Kelly Robinson opposite Bill Cosby. Culp and Cosby remained friends after the show went off the air and were reunited in 1994 in I Spy Returns. Culp also played the hardboiled crime-busting federal agent Bill Maxwell on The Greatest American Hero from 1981-83.
Culp co-starred in Paul Mazursky’s wife-swapping 1969 feature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, with Elliot Gould, Natalie Wood, and Dyan Cannon. He also worked as a television director from time to time. In later years he had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond as Ray Barone’s father-in-law. Robert Culp was 79.
Peter Graves worked as a musician and radio actor before entering films with 1950’s Rogue River. He starred in a string of low budget sci-fi pictures in the early fifties, but then made Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), in which Graves was first-rate as a supposedly all-American POW who turned out to be a vicious Nazi spy. Then he played Shelley Winters’ doomed husband in Night of the Hunter (1955).
I first came to know him, however, on television’s Fury, a series about “a horse and the boy who loved him,” as they said. The show ran five years beginning in 1955 and then went into reruns for years after that. What I didn’t know at the time was that Peter Graves was the younger brother of Marshall Matt Dillon—well, James Arness of Gunsmoke.
In 1966, Peter Graves replaced Steven Hill as head of the force on the weekly TV adventure series Mission: Impossible. The show went on until 1973. In 1980 Graves co-starred in the feature comedy hit Airplane! playing an airline pilot. Although the film was a spoof on airplane disaster movies, Graves played his part dead straight and was wonderful in it.
Peter Graves effortlessly maintained his reliable, authoritative movie persona into the ‘90s and 2000s, and hosted the Biography series on A&E, for which he won an Emmy; he also guest-starred on programs including Cold Case, House and American Dad. He died at the age of 83.
I don’t think any TV hero of the 1950s made as much of an impression on me as did Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett. I adored him. I had Davy’s coonskin cap, Davy’s rifle (Old Betsy), and any other Crockett merchandise I could cajole my parents into buying me. I was the perfect age when the Davy Crockett phenomenon hit.
Originally from Texas, Fess Parker began acting professionally in 1951 as a stage performer in the national company of Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda. Shortly afterward, he made his film debut in Untamed Frontier, with Joseph Cotton and Shelly Winters. Then in 1954, Walt Disney signed Parker to play the title role in Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.
As Crockett, he toured 13 foreign countries and 42 cities. Fess Parker continued to star in numerous Disney box office hits, such as Old Yeller, The Great Locomotive Chase and Westward Ho the Wagons! He also rode beside Walt Disney as the main attraction during the opening of Disneyland in 1955. Later under contract with Paramount Pictures, Parker made three films before filling in for Howard Keel as Curly in the musical tour of Oklahoma!
In 1964 Parker began filming his network television series, Daniel Boone. During six years as one of the highest rated shows of its time, Parker not only starred in the series but co-produced it and directed five of its most popular episodes. In 1968, the U.S. Post Office Department issued a six-cent Daniel Boone commemorative stamp.
In his later years Fess Parker became active in real estate development, opening a couple of hotels and a winery. I had the good fortune to meet him at his Red Lion Resort Hotel at a Disney studio retreat I was a part of some years ago. I even presented him with a large color sketch I made of Mickey Mouse dressed as Davy Crockett which we all signed as a “thank you” to him. He was a warm gracious man, just the guy you would expect him to be. Very much like his Crockett persona.
How many of us get the chance to actually meet one of our heroes in person? Well, I did and I’ll never forget it. Fess Parker will always be King of the Wild Frontier to me.