Fess Parker, who died yesterday at 85, was a childhood hero of mine as the star of the TV series Davy Crockett. I got to know him, however, because he was a neighbor of Michael Jackson’s—we first met in 1993, as the zoo animals were being evacuated from Jackson’s Neverland Ranch during a vicious wildfire. A courtly six-foot-six, Parker had retired from acting years earlier but maintained his fame by creating a successful winery and picturing himself in his trademark coonskin cap on the labels of his bottles. He was the unofficial mayor of Los Olivos, the beautiful winemaking town in the Santa Ynez valley north of Santa Barbara, and he presided over the luxurious Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa with his charming wife of 50 years, the chanteuse Marcella Rinehart.
Fess and Marcella held community sings around the piano in the lobby of their inn on Thursday nights, and they were a few of the more memorable evenings I spent while covering Jackson’s child-molestation trial for Vanity Fair in 2005. When I was first invited to attend, I thought it was just going to be a campfire-type sing-along with a group of neighbors, but it was actually a night of carefully rehearsed performances. The hills were alive with onetime stars. Charlie’s Angel’s actress Cheryl Ladd and her husband, the music composer and arranger Bryan Russell, started off one evening with a polished duet of “Orange Colored Sky,” followed by Ed Ames singing Broadway show tunes (after recording such hits as “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane” and “You You You” with the Ames brothers, he played the Indian, Mingo, on Parker’s second hit TV series, Daniel Boone). On another Thursday, Parker’s guest was country-music star Jimmy Dean (he of the sausages), who got a little impatient as his much younger wife, accompanying him on the piano, strained to keep up with his key changes.Marcella and Fess would preside with aplomb, often taking the mike themselves to sing, and more or less behaved as if they were entertaining in a smoky den in St. Tropez. The wine was always terrific (Marcella introduced me to Viognier), and the hosts were extremely gracious and great fun. After literally pushing me out to sing a duet with Ed Ames, Fess led the applause as I gasped my way through Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just In Love.” Fess was a big fan of Meet the Press and my late husband, Tim Russert, and he immediately wrote a letter to Tim saying that a star had been born. It was probably the high point of my time in California during that crazy trial—it felt every bit as surreal as Michael Jackson showing up for court in his pajamas. I hope they sang for Fess last night.