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Daniel Boone

Fess Parker had started a pop-culture explosion in the 1950's when he portrayed Davy Crockett in a series of TV serials for Walt Disney; but it was as another American frontier hero, Daniel Boone, that he would come to be known and loved by millions of television viewers.

Daniel Boone After his stint as Crockett, actor Fess Parker knocked around Hollywood trying to get another gig going. He stayed with Disney long enough to make Old Yeller, but was upset when he wasn't allowed out of his contract long enough to make The Searchers with director John Ford. He took a few acting jobs here and there, including the title role in the TV version of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, but nothing substantial was coming his way. After having considered himself pigeon-holed by the spectacular success of his previous coonskin-cap-wearing persona, Parker was beginning to think his fortune lay again with the Crockett character - or one reasonably similar to it.

The Wonderful World of Disney was by 1964 the ruler of early-Sunday-night television. Each week viewers were treated to either a movie, a travelogue (usually with an animal protagonist), a bunch of cartoons, or some other delight from the Disney vaults. Network NBC wanted another hit from the company and sought to return Davy Crockett to the airwaves in a regular series - but Disney were reluctant to mess with the character that had gained them such a following the previous decade.

Gradually, it was decided that another, very similar character could be used in place of the Tennessee folk hero. Why not a Kentucky hero - one who lived a century earlier, during the American revolution, running around with a longrifle and defending his nation? Why not give him a cool Indian companion? And, most of obvious of all, why not let him wear a coonskin cap? Parker was willing, so ABC put Daniel Boone on the 1964-65 schedule.

The main difference this time, however, was economic: a series of Boone-focused merchandise was already in stores when the show debuted, ready for the kids that ABC knew would come running looking for lunchboxes, comic books, toy guns and rubber knives. Star Fess Parker, too, had looked to the future, and saw to it that he got a substantial piece of the merchandising action.

The show was an instant hit, set during the time when much of America was still a wilderness (and the Appalachians were considered 'the West' by most of the nation) and there was still plenty of adventure to be found within the young continent. Daniel Boone was based out of Boonesboro, Kentucky, and had a wife and two kids - but viewers knew that the real Daniel was the man of action who could fight like a demon with his fists, and was an expert with his rifle and his knife, could track like a man like an Indian, and who trapped and hunted to feed his family. It was a romantic view of a rough lifestyle, but it was endlessly appealing to boys who lived in the suburbs and dreamed of a life of freedom and action.

Daniel's Indian companion, Mingo, became a popular character in his own right, often getting more fan mail than the star. Played by singer/actor Ed Ames, Mingo was an unconventional Indian: he had been raised in England and had graduated from Harvard, but still had the savage wherewithall to sneak through the woods, shoot arrows, and ride a horse without a saddle. Ames had initially been a singer - part of the Ames Brothers - but somehow made his way into acting, appearing in popular stage shows of the time. He took the gig on the show because it would mean a steady paycheck - and expected the whole thing to fall apart within a few months, anyway. As it turned out, he was on the show for four years, and his face and voice became as familiar to TV viewers as Parker's was.

Daniel Boone Sure, the show was historically inaccurate - badly so. But who cares? Historical verisimilitude was never the point - the point was action and adventure and a decent, clean (except for the violence) family show that viewers would want to turn to again and again. Of course the usual politically correct idiots tried to raise a fuss about this or that aspect of the show - the Kentucky legislature decried its departures from reality, for example - but it stayed a hit during its run on the network. I'm barely old enough to remember the show from its original run, and I do remember looking to Daniel Boone as an early hero. One of the first toys I was given when I moved to this area at the age of seven was a little toy tomahawk, which (I was told) was found on the Cumberland Gap trail, almost certainly dropped by some Indian savage in years gone by. (To this day, however, I have trouble differentiating Boone's adventures from Davy Crockett's - inevitable, given the characters' similarity as presented to kids of my generation.)

Parker left show business after the show folded and invested his proceedings from the Boone merchandise. Today he is the owner of Fess Parker's Winery & Vineyard, which is run as a family business, as well as the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa. The labels of his company wine feature a coonskin cap; one of the caps he wore on the show now sits in the Smithsonian.

Today, it's highly unlikely that any of America's youth know how to track their way through the wilderness or live off the trail, much less fire a rifle or skin the meat of what they've killed. Even if much of our nation's wilderness were restored overnight, the forces of political correctness would prevent them from making use of it or even possibly look at it without sunscreen, a crash helmet, and an adult supervisor nearby. Heck, they can't even watch such a thing on TV. That's a sad situation indeed.

When every inch of the frontier has been paved over, who will be our explorers? When every wild and dangerous place is turned into a mini-mall, where will we get our heroes?

TV's version of Daniel Boone may have been a complete fiction, but he is more than enough of a hero to those of us who remember him. And he may have been the last of his kind... to our discredit.

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