When I was a kid, we were a lower middle class family and my dad was a strict disciplinarian. Nothing "cool" about that to a kid, so I looked to the movies for "cool" role models, and the first one I remember was Bob Crane in Superdad. Nowadays we know that Crane's private life was a bit of a mess, to be kind, but back then, I knew Crane as the laid back, hip and funny star of Hogan's Heroes, and to see that cool dude as a concerned father, worried about the influence of the wolf-ish Kurt Russell on his college-bound daughter, made me wish he was my dad.
The 70s were a fractious time to be looking for parental role models at the movies -- or fathers who weren't complete bastards. Can we really say that a murderous gangster like Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in The Godfather was a great father? I say yes: he loved his wife, he loved his children, he always looked out for their best interests, and he provided well for them. (Cinematical's Erik Davis reasoned similarly years ago; great minds think alike.) But I'm afraid if I was a Corleone, I'd be more like poor Fredo than Sonny or Michael.
Now Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? That's more like it. Steven Spielberg has been working out his own personal "daddy issues" through the years, and Dreyfus as Roy Neary is an over-the-top dad who ends up scaring his kids. Yet he's driven and focused and likes to play with his food, and ends up going to the stars. (Oops, spoiler!) And what kid doesn't secretly want his dad to blast off into space?
Earlier, in Jaws (which celebrates the 35th anniversary of its original release today), we get to see a dynamic dad in action. Roy Scheider as Police Chief Martin Brody is a scaredy-cat at first, but he deals with his fears and heads out on the open water to protect the town. The motivation comes, though, when he realizes that his sons are in mortal danger from the great white shark. So bravo to the Chief -- that's the kind of father we all want. (Scheider played a very non-traditional father in All That Jazz, a smokin', fornicatin', druggin' devil of a dad, with dazzling dance moves.)
Most of us, though, would probably have been happy to have a father who was more like Paul Dooley in Breaking Away. His son (Dennis Christopher) shaves his legs and speaks Italian, and refuses to think practically about his future. Dear old dad is befuddled and frequently fired up by his son's actions, but his wife (Barbara Barrie) calms him down and reminds him that he really does love the kid. In the end, it's love and support that matters the most. Dooley embodies wholesome virtues and the real-life anxieties of millions of fathers who don't quite understand who they've helped bring into the world. Gotta love the guy.
(On the opposite end of the scale, John Huston in Chinatown must be the worst movie dad ever, although Jack Nicholson in The Shining gives him a run for the money.)
So that sums up my favorite movie dads of the 70s, the most influential decade upon my impressionable young mind, but it's fun to think about other great movie fathers over the decades: Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride, Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and so on and so forth. I know those of you who came of age in 80s, 90s, and 00s will have your own favorites, so please share in the comments section. Who are your favorite movie dads?
P.S. My own father passed away six years ago, so Father's Day is always a bittersweet time for me. It's fun to reflect on all the good times we shared and the movies we watched together, Eventually I realized I really did have a "cool" dad, who loved me and always wanted to protect me, and those are the memories that I cherish.