My dad was never much interested in the movies. He grew up in the same small town I was born in (and where he still lives), the Italian-American son of a father, who earned his living in the woods as a logger, and a mother who ran the meat department for the local Safeway, and his interests were outdoor-oriented ones—fishing, hunting, scouring the sagebrush-dotted landscape of Eastern Oregon for Native-American artifacts—passed down from his dad. But his mother’s interest in Hollywood movies of her day—the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s—never really held much sway for him. When I came along in 1960, he was only 20 years old (my mom was 19), and he has admitted in recent years that he was too young to really know what lay in store for him in his role as a father, that he probably wasn’t ready for it. What he has never admitted, but what I certainly believe to be true, is that he had some hopes, some plans, some idea of what it would be like to have a son, an idea grounded in his own relationship with his dad, and that he suffered a bitter disappointment when the interests I developed as a young boy didn’t exactly line up with his own.
He wanted to pass along his love of the outdoors, and his weekend interest in football and baseball, and I was much more interested in reading, writing, drawing, watching TV and following the flights of my imagination, which often (but not always) involved a lot of solitary play time. I can even remember a conversation with my mother when I was no more than three, in which she sat me on the top bunk of my bed and asked me to try to be interested in football for my daddy’s sake. But a three-year-old is what a three-year-old is, and I just couldn’t find it in me to sustain enough interest in sports to make my dad happy. Conversely, the only TV show I can remember him watching with any active interest was McHale’s Navy, which I enjoyed but which he, to my mother’s annoyance, found hysterically funny. And I can remember him dragging me out of bed around 10:00 p.m. one weeknight, again when I was about three, to watch Ralph the Muppet Dog play the piano on The Jimmy Dean Show. Science fiction, horror and fantasy programs were, I’m sure, far too fanciful for a man whose idea of a good time was going away for three weeks at a time hunting bighorn sheep in Montana, but he never really cared for earthier concepts like westerns and cop shows either. And other than the occasional episode of Gunsmoke, he never seemed to much care about the TV I was interested in—cartoons held no allure for him, of course, but neither did stuff like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Have Gun Will Travel, Dark Shadows, Batman, Land of the Giants, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Combat, Honey West and The Avengers.
My earliest memories of going to the movies were all courtesy of my mom. The first movie I remember seeing was the MGM cartoon feature Gay Purr-ee at the Marius Theater in Lakeview, Oregon. My mom and, I believe, one of her sisters took me and my two older cousins—I was probably around three, but the movie came out in 1962, so I could have even been two. And as we got older, she shepherded my sister and I to all the latest Disney features as soon as they came out. We saw The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, Blackbeard’s Ghost, That Darn Cat!, Lieutenant Robin Crusoe, USN and The Jungle Book with my mom at the old Tower Theater in Roseville, California, before moving back to Lakeview when I was six. There, as we were getting old enough to be trusted, she often dropped us off for Saturday matinees at the Alger Theater, and the occasional evening show (she knew that Mrs. Alger, a family friend, would keep an eye on us). It was she who felt that The Sound of Music would be something with which my sister and I would be enthralled, and it was after that experience that I knew my taste and my mother’s wouldn’t necessarily have to coincide, nor would they likely ever from that point on.
Dad did, however, take me to the movies a couple of times. I remember that the first time he asked me if I wanted to go to a movie with him I became irrationally excited, as if this were the most unlikely question to ever hear emanate from his lips. Of course I immediately said yes, not caring a whit what the feature even was. It was a chance for my dad and I to enjoy something together, something that I liked. I realized he was reaching out to me, and for a six-year-old who up to that point seemingly had little in common with his dad except a strong familial resemblance, this was welcome news. When we arrived at the “theater,” however, I realized even Dad’s idea of what constituted a movie didn’t exactly gibe with mine. We ended up in a converted airplane Quonset where a local club of some sort (I don’t even know if Dad was a member) was screening some 16mm travelogue footage of river rafting and fly fishing, which, of course, I found as compelling as I would real-time footage of a tortoise race.
To be fair, Dad did occasionally throw us into our pajamas, grab Mom, and head us out in the family Volkswagen bug to the Circle JM Drive-in for big ticket items like John Wayne’s The Green Berets (the Circle JM’s marquee said it all—“The Big One Is Here!”) and the inexplicable double feature of Fitzwilly, a wry Dick van Dyke comedy that nobody was much interested in, and The Incident, a grim subway hostage drama that Mom insisted we abandon after a flash of switchblade and the movie’s first big swear (Something on the order of “Where the hell do you think you’re going, old man?”).
But from about my tenth year on, if my dad ever suggested seeing a movie in an indoor theater, I could be reasonably sure it would be something on the order of a four-walled Arthur R. Dubs nature documentary like American Wilderness (1970), The Wonder of It All (1974) or Vanishing Wilderness (1974). These pictures usually played only one night—the companies would rent the theater out, advertise like hell on radio and TV (a relatively rare phenomenon in itself in those days), provide their own box-office employees, and rake in a tremendous amount of cash—causing a huge line to snake out from the Alger Theater box office and around the block, and my dad made sure my family and I saw them all.
I was forever asking Dad, usually out of my mom’s earshot, to take me to the latest R-rated sensation when they hit town, and sometimes he’d even agree. But the tantalizingly dangled prospect of getting to see MPAA-forbidden fruit like Easy Rider, The French Connection, M*A*S*H and Klute was almost always dashed at the 11th hour by my mom in a huff and a flurry of top-volume, “Whatwereyouthinking?He’snotoldenoughforthatkindofthing!” shout-downs for which my dad had no defense, or at least not much interest in mounting one. (Ironically, my mom would provide the ride to my first R-rated movie, a drive-in screening of Dirty Harry at the ripe old age of 12, thus opening the door to a lifelong series of perversions and mind-warping movie experiences that continue to have their way with my fragile psychology to this very day.)
One afternoon, when I was around 11, my dad stunned me by asking me if I wanted to go to the movies with him that night. By age 11 I was very aware of the approximately two months of programming that comprised the Alger Theater “show calendar,” and I knew that there was no wildlife epic or Bigfoot faux-documentary on the bill. Instead, my dad was suggesting that we see a real movie, Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse. Of course, I jumped at the chance, and we had a pretty darn good time—we were able, I suppose, to bond over our mutual disinclination to participate in any ceremony in which we’d end up, like Harris does in the movie’s centerpiece Native-American tribal initiation rite, hanging from the ceiling with only eagles’ talons embedded in our pectoral muscles keeping us off the floor. A Man Called Horse was a good-enough movie, but it did not precipitate much more regular movie-going for my dad and I.
He sprang another surprise movie invite on me about a year later and we headed out to the drive-in to take in—brace yourselves—Richard Harris in Man in the Wilderness. Good movie, nice to spend some time with Dad, but I was beginning to detect a pattern here. If I was ever to get Dad to take me to see any other movies, particularly ones I was not old enough in the eyes of the MPAA to attend solo, then it might help if the words “man, “wilderness,” or “Richard Harris” were somehow involved. Unfortunately, Harris wouldn’t make another movie with “wilderness” in the title, his next “man” movie would be Return of a Man Called Horse six years later, and his next Western-period film, The Deadly Trackers (1973), wouldn’t even get booked at the Alger.
It seemed the likelihood of seeing another movie with my dad was dwindling, and I was more obstinate than ever as I entered high school about not participating willingly in any of his hunting and fishing adventures. And although I had not yet formulated any real moral argument against hunting, I was very open, as a freshman in high school, to critical thinking about the sport and about the assumed masculine imperative it embodied. But I must admit all such highfalutin considerations were quite secondary to the fact that I’d heard a lot about the film version of James Dickey’s book Deliverance and that it sounded pretty tough, pretty cool. And I was aware of vague language in some of the reviews I’d read that intimated the movie contained a pretty shocking, violent episode of some kind that would end up pitting the four weekend adventurer “heroes” of the movie against some pretty horrific, relentless backwoods Gomers with guns. But I didn’t know the true nature of this “violent episode” until a girl in my Spanish 101 class, a senior girl, a senior girl who I had a crush on, spilled the beans to me one day in giggles and hushed tones. I knew that I had to see this movie, if for no other reason than I couldn’t imagine how such a scene could possibly be staged, and since I knew it was scheduled on the Alger Theater show calendar for later that month, I began relentlessly hinting to Dad about the good things I’d heard about this new river-rafting movie that was coming up. I figured if I made it sound like Vanishing Wilderness or something similarly Dubsian, my chances of actually getting him to take me to see it would increase sharply. The reductive little ad on the show calendar itself played right into my hands—it simply showed a silhouette of four men carrying a canoe on their backs, the ad copy intimating danger of some sort. It really didn’t take much wheedling to get him to agree to go, and Mom was uncharacteristically silent on the subject, so I began thinking that maybe my efforts might be successful this time around.
When it came time to head off to the show, I was a bit surprised to find out that Mom, not a big film fan in her own right, had decided to tag along. I guess she just wanted to have a night out at the movies too, and I never considered it strange that she’d have any interest in seeing a movie like this one. In fact, nothing about the entire situation struck me as the least bit odd or uncomfortable, until Deliverance was well underway. The movie was shot through with dread from the first sepia-toned frames (which eventually turned a saturated, vibrant, no-less-dread-drenched color), and I immediately became nervous, though I wasn’t sure why. Then, as the scene approached, I started remembering details about it that the senior girl in Spanish class had let fly. I’m not sure at exactly what point it dawned on me, but dawn on me it did—I was trapped between my mom and dad in the balcony of the Alger Theater, the Pyrrhic victor in a scheme of my own devising to trick my dad into taking me to a movie I was at least four years too young to see, and I was about to be subjected to the sight of a pudgy, pathetic man in a dopey fishing hat getting raped and humiliated by a Filthy, Leering Moonshiner while his Greasy, Toothless Buddy held a shotgun on the proceedings and commented on the “right purty mouth” of the pudgy guy’s canoeing partner, who stood a helpless witness to the whole atrocity while strapped by the neck to the trunk of a tree.
As the scene went on and on, I remember feeling almost nauseous and wanting to turn away, not only because of the horror being depicted on screen, but also because of my growing realization that my mom had mostly turned away from the screen herself, and not to protect herself from the horror being depicted on screen, but to start the laborious process of boring a hole into my throbbing temples with the white-hot laser of her furious stare. By the time Burt Reynolds put a razor-sharp graphite arrow through the Adam’s apple of the F.L.M., sending the G.T.B. scooting off through the trees and dodging rifle fire from the fourth weekend whitewater warrior, I felt that the worst had to be over and settled down to try to “enjoy” the more conventional turns of the screws that director John Boorman still had in store. But I swear I could feel the heat radiating off my mom’s shoulders for the rest of the movie. Dad’s reactions were, on the other hand, as neutral as could be. Perhaps he too was cowed by the anger of his wife and felt he was in for an epic scolding on the responsibilities of parenthood. Perhaps he himself was queasy over what he’d just seen and the prospect of having to explain or discuss it in any way with his barely pubescent son. Whatever was going on in that head of his, he kept it quiet for the length of the movie and for the entire short ride home. When we got home, I remember my mom, who had calmed down considerably by then, berating me mildly and telling me that I had no business seeing a movie like that (as a 45-year-old parent myself, I can say that she was absolutely right). I don’t remember my dad ever commenting on the movie or the experience, however. To this day I don’t know his side of the story. Perhaps I should ask him about it. But just not when Mom’s around—she still scowls at the memory, and even the mention of the movie Deliverance.
As far as I can recall, that was it for my dad and I and the movies all the way through high school. Oh, there would be those Sunday afternoons when he’d come back from a goose hunt or a fishing trip and walk in on me engrossed in a Sergio Leone western on TV, stand and watch for a minute or two, complain about how close the camera was to the actors’ faces or that nothing ever happened in these stupid movies, and walk out of the room. But by the time I was 13 or 14 he and I had, with the exception of one interesting but ultimately unpleasant deer hunting trip he took me on, gone our separate ways as far as our personal interests and activities were concerned. He still came, with my mom and others in our family, to see me in plays or performing with the high school concert and stage bands, or with the swing choir, but he rarely, if ever, expressed any interest in going to the movies, and certainly not with me.
The last great hurrah for the movies, as far as my dad and I were concerned, came in September of 1978. He, my mom, and my seven-year-old sister, had accompanied me back to Eugene to help me get packed into my new dorm room on campus, and the weekend we were there we had all decided to meet up with my best friend Bruce and take in a showing of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which had just been released about a month earlier. The previous October, in 1977, Bruce and I had met on the set of the film, where we had both been cast as extras for the length of production, he as a member of the Delta fraternity, the Animal House, I as a Delta pledge. We spent long hours on the set getting to know each other, talking, laughing, observing the various insanities of the movie’s production, and getting to know some of the actors and crew. And now, a year later, the movie had come out and we began the process of seeing it as many times as possible before it disappeared from theaters (this was in the heady pre-VCR days, and the movie played in Eugene for at least six months, in one venue or another, not counting its official re-release at the beginning of the following school year in September 1979).
We had already seen the movie several times since its August unveiling, including two separate “premieres” for local people who were involved in the production, one held in Eugene at the National Theater, with many of the cast and crew present, and another at the Fox Theater in Downtown Portland. And we both looked forward to seeing my parents’ reaction not only to seeing their son and his best friend up on the big screen, but up on the big screen in a hilarious hit that, at the time, featured a level of raunchiness never before seen in an American movie (it’s amusing to register just how quaint and almost innocent Animal House seems 27 years later). I took particular pleasure in my dad’s anticipation. During that summer of 1978, especially after Animal House had become a hit and was the movie everyone had to see, I caught him bragging several times to his friends about my being in it. It seemed that, finally, I was involved with something that my dad seemed to be genuinely proud of me for, and he hadn’t even seen the movie yet.
But when it came time to get together with Bruce and actually go to the theater, we realized there was a hitch in our plans—someone had to stay in my mom and dad’s motel with my sister, who was obviously too young to be seeing a movie like Animal House (it was conveniently forgotten that, when Angie was the tender age of four, my mom took her along with me and my other sister, Carrie, to see the only slightly less- raunchy Blazing Saddles because she couldn’t find a baby-sitter). After some fretting, it was decided that Mom would stay in the motel room with Angie while the boys went to the 8:00 p.m. show. Then Mom would bring Angie to the theater and meet us out front as we exited, where she would give Angie over to Dad, who would take Angie back to the motel room and put her in bed while the boys went back for the 10:15 p.m. show with Mom.
I’ll always remember that 8:00 p.m. show with Bruce and Dad as one of the highlights of my young life. My dad howled with laughter throughout the entire movie—Bruce Magill’s character D-Day particularly tickled him, so much so that during the Where Are They Now wrap-up of characters before the end credits, the shot of D-Day letting loose that high-pitched hyena cackle before throwing the Deathmobile into reverse and making his escape sent my dad into a fit in which he matched D-Day’s high-octave laughter to a perfect pitch, only Dad sustained it long after D-Day, whose whereabouts turned out to be unknown, had made his final exit from the movie. As the lights came up, my dad was more animated than I’d ever seen him after a movie, and he laughed and recalled favorite moments all the way out the front doors.
We met Mom as planned amongst the throng of ticket-buyers waiting to get in for the next showing. She and Angie were ready for the hand-off. Fortunately, we didn’t need to worry about whether the next show would be sold out or not, as we had bought our 10:15 tickets in advance. All we had to do was hurry up and get back in line before all the good seats got taken. But as we started to move to the back of the line, Bruce and I realized something was wrong. Dad and Mom had moved off to the side of the line and were discussing something in a seemingly serious fashion, something I feared might end up derailing our plans to get Mom inside to see the movie. As they moved back toward us, I heard my dad say to my mom, “It’s really not that bad. I don’t think it’d be that much of a problem for her.” Bruce and I looked at each other, wondering if we’d gotten the gist of what my dad was suggesting. It turned out that we did. My dad had talked my mom into bringing Angie inside for the 10:15 p.m. show so he wouldn’t have to go back to the motel. He talked her into letting his seven-year-old daughter see National Lampoon’s Animal House because—and I’m stunned to this day to think about this-- he wanted to turn right around and see it again himself! It had always been my understanding of my dad’s proclivities, and his impatience with most every kind of entertainment that didn’t involve projecting 35mm slides in his living room depicting bighorn sheep hunting trips he’d gone on with his buddies, that for him to want to see a movie twice—let alone in quick succession on the same night—was a virtual impossibility. I just couldn’t imagine a situation where he would willingly let that happen. And yet here it was happening right before my very eyes. And the movie that inspired this freakish behavior on his part was this wild-ass cultural phenomenon of a comedy in which I, his only begotten son, had a very small part.
If Mom shot Dad that same laser beam of fury during the 10:15 p.m. show that she used to burn a small hole in my head during Deliverance five years previous, it sure wasn’t apparent to any of us that night. We all emerged from the theater laughing, excited, and happy, none more so than my dad, who diffused any lingering doubt my mom had about Angie being exposed to the R-rated high jinks of the Delta House by repeatedly reliving some of his favorite moments (the not-so-nasty ones, at least). My dad saw National Lampoon’s Animal House twice in one night. And he’s seen it several times since then, both in the theater and on TV and home video. I would guess that he’s probably seen it more times than any other movie he’s ever encountered, and even though I had nothing to do with his laughter, I still take a certain amount of pride in that fact. To this day, the movie is one of the sure-thing topics we can talk about with mutually assured pleasure. After all these years, my dad and I had found some common ground, and it didn’t have anything to do with hunting, fishing or all the other outdoor activities he often seemed more interested in than his own kids when my sisters and I were young—no, it all centered around a movie, the movie, as it turned out, and I just can't help but smile when I think about that.
These days my dad and I see things much more on similar planes. When I was five years old, he was 25. Now I’m a 45-year-old father of two daughters, one is five, the other about to turn three. Imagining how he must have looked at life having two kids at an age 20 years younger than where I’m at right now is a daunting bit of empathy—I’m pretty convinced that, no matter how much I might have thought so at the time, I wouldn’t have had the character or the strength to be a good father at 25 years old. And yet I feel like, despite our various insecurities, my sisters and I turned out to be pretty levelheaded, productive citizens and, thanks to the example we grew up with, pretty good parents too. And the irony, as far as my dad and I are concerned, is that now that he’s a grandfather several times over and well into his official retirement, he’s become a much more frequent movie-watcher. He and Mom rent quite frequently, and more significantly, they make it up to the good old Alger Theater (with its newly upgraded ‘80s-vintage Dolby stereo sound system and platter projection system) about once a month, an unheard-of level of cinematic activity on their part when I was a kid. Dad has even gone so far as to vocally champion on several occasions the work of Pixar Studios, which he considers, not without some pretty convincing evidence, the source of some of the best filmmaking around right now.
As satisfying as all that news is to me, I know that he’s been somewhat similarly amazed to witness my emergence over the last decade as a serious baseball fan, and someone who really enjoys fishing and camping too. Neither development would ever have been guessed by him as he watched me grow up with unapologetic disinterest in sports (although I did do some time in Little League and on the junior high basketball team) and the Great Outdoors, but I have a feeling he revels in them just the same, especially on those occasions when I’ve scored him tickets for Opening Day at Dodger Stadium. Of course, we remain devoted to our particular interests to degrees that the other will never truly understand, and one of the great securities of growing up and becoming a man and a father is discovering that that kind of independence is perfectly okay. In fact, it’s desirable (something I’d do well to remember as my own daughters grow up and begin to have even more individual thought and motivation than they already have). But another great security is being able to approach your dad, or your son, as adults on each other’s playing field. I cherish the rare times when I’ve been able to go fishing with my dad since I’ve grown up and been old enough to actually appreciate the experience, the opportunity to be with him in a completely open-ended, unhurried situation away from the often annoying influences of everyday life.
And I look back with particular fondness on those times, and there have been a few in the past few years, when we’ve set aside whatever was going on at the time and gone to see a movie together, just us two. On one visit to Los Angeles some years ago, I remember he and I sneaking out to a late show of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. My dad and I watching a subtitled movie together—the mind reels. And the year my oldest daughter turned two, we contrived to delay her birthday party by about a month so that Mom and Dad could come down from Oregon for the festivities and Dad and I could make it to Opening Day to see the Dodgers. That Monday night before the day of the game, Dad got the itch to see a movie, so we slipped out to see Dennis Quaid in The Rookie, the story of Jim Morris, the real-life pitcher who stepped out of the shadow of an overbearing military father and the security of a teaching job to become the oldest rookie in major league history by unexpectedly acing an audition with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. As my dad and I sat enveloped in the rich story the movie told, one of a reticent father’s expectations for and disappointment in his son, and the son’s struggle to gain some level of acceptance and love from that father, all unfolding amid the atmosphere of the game I’d grown to love so much, a game my dad had always loved, and with the anticipation of the big game we’d go together to see the very next day, I felt connected to my dad in a way I never had before, in a way I’d long given up hope of ever experiencing. We spent time in each other’s company that week with few uncomfortable silences, in the awareness of some level of mutual respect that had never been very accessible to either of us in the past. I think we could both see and appreciate the fact that such respect was orchestrated largely because of three things we probably never thought we’d have in common—fatherhood, baseball and the movies. Amazing how life turns out sometimes, isn’t it?
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.