Movies show that flawed fathers can be role models, too


James Dunn with Peggy Ann Garner in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

I learned fatherhood from the movies.

My own dad? A serial deserter, he taught me what not to do. His third abandonment was the one that stuck. I came home from school and found the doors locked and the Cadillac gone. He’d put our new TV in the trunk and emptied the bank accounts on his way out of town. I never spoke to him again.

I was 14.

My mom stepped up, of course. That’s what mothers do, if their kids are lucky. She went back to work, after nearly 20 years at home. She kept me housed, and fed, and eventually got me off to college. She was my living lesson in what being a parent really meant.

But being a man? At first, that was a bit of a mystery.

My father had never been around much anyway, so I’d always looked to old movies for role models. There were plenty to choose from. I didn’t have the massive physique of a John Wayne, or the perfect smile of an Errol Flynn. But I could always aspire to the common decency of a Jimmy Stewart, or a Henry Fonda.

Later, as I accumulated various vices, the wounded cynicism of a Humphrey Bogart or flippant rebellion of a Robert Mitchum took over. So, I guiltily admit, did the cigarettes — a habit I regrettably took up in high school and kept for years. In fact, I didn’t quit until I became a father for the first time.

That was a real milestone — and one I hadn’t prepared for.

What was a dad supposed to be? My own had provided only negative examples. Television fathers — from “Leave It to Beaver” to “The Cosby Show” — set impossible benchmarks. (That was before, of course, we learned the truth about Bill Cosby, or shows like “The Simpsons” ushered in the age of The Dad as Buffoon.)

The movies, though … well, if you looked hard enough, they offered some guidance.

Gregory Peck with Mary Badham in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Some big-screen dads were true heroes, of course, and they loomed large in my imagination. Who can imagine a more perfect parent than Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” — fighting for what’s right, standing up to racists, even putting down a dangerous rabid dog? (And if that wasn’t impressive enough for you, there he was in “Cape Fear,” protecting his family from a rabid Mitchum.)

Peck set the bar for fatherhood pretty high.

But over the years, I came to prefer the movie dads who weren’t quite so impressive. Who were sometimes distracted, even short-tempered. Who didn’t have all the answers (or even know all the questions). Who, sometimes, outright failed. But who still kept at it.

Like Robert De Niro in “A Bronx Tale.” For once, he’s not the most forbidding guy in the movie, or even the most charismatic (that honor goes to the story’s author, Chazz Palminteri, as the outer borough gangster). Here, De Niro is just a working stiff, a bus driver. But he knows what’s right — and what he has to do to keep his son from turning into a real mobster. (It’s like the flip side of “Goodfellas.”)

And I loved Jack Klugman in “Goodbye, Columbus.” I admit I didn’t admire the Patimkins of Short Hills the first time I watched the movie. Seen through Richard Benjamin’s unforgiving eyes, they’re crude and crass. But then, years later, I saw the movie again. Listened to how Klugman talks to that spoiled daughter he still adores. Is he a nouveau riche cliché? Sure, a bit. But a mensch? Definitely.

Of course, I still kept a soft spot for heroic dads. Like Pete Postlethwaite in “In the Name of the Father,” who never gives up his belief in his son’s innocence — even after he gets caught up in the same false charges, and ends up in the same British prison. Or Roberto Benigni in “Life Is Beautiful,” who even in the hell-on-Earth of the Nazi death camps, manages to protect his boy.

Will Smith with Jaden Christopher Syre Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

But I preferred the quieter heroes. Like Will Smith in the real-life story “The Pursuit of Happyness,” as a dad struggling with poverty but determined to pull himself and his son out of homelessness. Or, of course, Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as a parent fighting hard to hold on to his principles and set the right example, instead of taking the moral shortcuts he could.

And as I racked up more years as a dad, I came to like the flawed fathers even more.

Like Paul Winfield, in “Sounder.” Determined to provide for his family, desperate when he comes back from hunting empty-handed, he steals a ham. It gets him a brutal stint on the work farm. But he comes home resolved that his children will have something more than sharecropping, and hunger, in their futures. He returns determined that his son is going to school, no matter what sacrifices it takes.

Or James Dunn in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” To many people, he would seem to be the worst kind of father. He drinks too much, and he’s often out of work. He spends his time spinning beautiful dreams of what could be — while his wife takes up the thankless job of being the practical parent, the one who pinches pennies, the one who says no.

But he loves his family, and hates his own weaknesses. And he never stops trying. No matter how little he wants to do it — no matter how hard it is — he gets up in the morning and goes out to look for work. He stays out until he finds it and, at the end of the day, he brings the money home. And the next morning, he gets up and does it all over again.

Because that’s what responsibility means. That’s what taking care of your family means. That’s what being a father means. And I didn’t learn that from my own.

I learned it from the movies.

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