Frontier man, Everyman, ‘Mission’ man

Fess Parker: King of the wild frontier.





NEW YORK, March 25, 2010 — One generation’s Davy Crockett was another generation’s Daniel Boone.

Fess Parker, who died last week, became famous for playing both of these American frontiersmen, but he preferred the “Daniel Boone” series for one very businesslike reason.

“When I did ‘Davy Crockett,’ I was under personal contract to Walt Disney,” Parker told me when I met him at a midtown Manhattan wine store in 1994.  “With ‘Daniel Boone,’ I had progressed from an employee to an owner,” he said with a grin.

By 1994, Parker had built himself a wine business in Santa Barbara.  So he came to this wine store in New York on a warm Saturday afternoon in September to promote his wines.  He was 70, and savvy enough to know his audience.  On that day in 1994, he wore a buckskin jacket, and donned a coonskin cap to pose for pictures with nearly 200 fans, many of whom — mostly men in their 40s and 50s — showed up wearing coonskin caps of their own.

“Daniel Boone” aired on NBC from 1964 to 1970 — Thursday nights from 7:30 to 8:30 (yes, network TV was once scheduled this way).  It was a childhood favorite which stands out in my memory for one reason.  It was April 4, 1968 — a Thursday — and I was watching “Daniel Boone” when NBC suddenly interrupted the show at about 10 minutes after 8 for a news bulletin: Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.  I was 8 years-old and had no idea who King was.

Robert Culp: TV tough guy.

Robert Culp, who died yesterday (March 24, 2010), is being remembered now mainly for “I Spy,” the 1960s series in which he co-starred with Bill Cosby.  Unlike “Daniel Boone,” “I Spy” was a series for grownups, and I didn’t watch it.  However, by the 1970s, Robert Culp had become such a ubiquitous presence on TV that it seemed like you couldn’t change the channel without running into him.

This was particularly true in the heyday of ABC’s “Movie of the Week,” and viewers of a certain age will never forget the ubiquity of Robert Culp in movies such as “Outrage” (1973), in which Culp played a southern California homeowner, a middle-class everyman, who wages war on a gang of juvenile delinquents terrorizing his neighborhood; “A Cold Night’s Death” (1973), in which Culp played a scientist at a polar ice station contending with an unwanted visitor; “A Strange Homecoming” (1974), in which Culp played a small-town sheriff whose psychopathic brother shows up in town for the first time in 20 years; and “A Cry for Help” (1975), in which Culp played an acerbic radio personality who tries to save a suicidal caller.

Peter Graves: Ultra-cool.

If Fess Parker was folksy and Robert Culp ubiquitous, then the adjective that best describes Peter Graves was “cool.”  Obituaries for Graves, who also died last week, took pains to contrast his most famous role — as the  “Mission: Impossible” unit leader Jim Phelps — with his comedic star turn in the comedy movie “Airplane!” in 1980.  But the two were hardly equivalent.

“Airplane,” though hilariously funny in spots, was instantly forgettable, while “Mission: Impossible” was one of the smartest TV shows ever produced — shrewdly plotted, sophisticated, sexy, thrilling.

There was, and perhaps never has been since, a cooler opening title sequence and theme music for a TV show.  Nor is the opening scene of any series as well-remembered as Phelps’ arrival in a private place, his locating of a small reel-to-reel tape recorder concealed in a glove compartment or behind loose bricks, and the hissing and steaming of the tape as it “self-destructs in five seconds” after Phelps listens to it.

Come to think of it, everyone on this show was the epitome of cool — Greg Morris as Barney (especially him), with his skill for concealing himself beneath banquet tables by setting up mirrors to make it look as if there was nothing under them (a process that remains a mystery to me); bodybuilder Peter Lupus as Willie; Leonard Nimoy as Paris, Lesley Ann Warren (for one season) as Dana; and all the rest.   And Peter Graves (who joined the show in its second season), was the icy, efficient centerpiece of every episode.

If “Airplane” indicated anything, it’s that Graves was eager to work, even if it meant spoofing his own public image.   The man was cool, and also game: He had to be to guest-star as Lucille Ball’s love interest in her dreadful final sitcom, “Life with Lucy” in 1986.  “Mission: Impossible,” of course, had been a Desilu Production so I guess you could say Peter Graves was cool as well as loyal.

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