It's Father's Day, and time once again for my annual look at the Worst Dads In Movies & Television (for previous editions, see here and here). I doubt there's any fictional dad who's worse than the real-life one I reads about who showed up for a custody hearing dressed in a Nazi uniform, but perhaps a few of them do come close.
WORST MOVIE DADS:
Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945): A tragic figure in the story, to be sure, but one of the ways he's a tragic figure is that he's an undependable lush and a screw-up. (This classic movie's not available on DVD. Think about that next time you're at a Redbox poring over the selections desperately searching for something to watch, before settling on Furry Vengeance or Just Go With It.)
Frank Stark (Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955): Such a clueless, ineffectual mound of wussyburger, you wonder how he managed to even conceive a child at all, much less James Dean. Bonus bad dad: Judy's Father (William Hopper). When Judy (Natalie Wood) tries to give him an affectionate kiss on the cheek, he slaps her. (WTF???)
Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) in My Fair Lady (1964): Upon learning his daughter Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) is living with a man, he tries to profit from the situation by shaking down Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) for money. It's debatable whether he's trying to pimp her out, since he only asks for five pounds, as he knows the Professor's intentions are honorable. For less honorable intentions, he'd have charged fifty.
Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) in Tender Mercies (1983): Duvall makes this list for the third year in a row, this time for his portrayal of country singer Mac, a recovering alcoholic and deadbeat dad. Mac was absent from his daughter's life for most of her childhood. When they're finally reunited, she asks him to sing the song he used to sing for her when she was little (her one happy memory of him), and he pretends not to know it. We know he's pretending, because the song in question is "Wings of a Dove", and a country singer who doesn't know that one would be as likely as a rock musician who doesn't know "Heartbreak Hotel", or an R&B singer who's never heard "Respect". When she dies in an auto crash, Mac barely registers any emotional response to the tragedy at all, while his ex-wife (Betty Buckley) breaks down in hysterics. (No wonder she dumped him.)
Bender's Dad in The Breakfast Club (1985): We never actually see him, but we can deduce from the fact that he burns his kid with a cigarette and smacks him (and his wife) around that he's something of a bastard.
Martin Chernak (David Strathairn) in Dominick & Eugene (1988): Strathairn returns to our list for the second year (he also played a pedophile priest in the made-for-TV movie Judgement, but that's a terrible father of a different kind). Martin beats his son on a daily basis, and one day, knocks the boy down a flight of stairs, killing him. When he learns that Nicky (Tom Hulce) a man afflicted with brain damage, is the only witness, he threatens to kill him too. Bonus bad dad: Dominick and Eugene's father, who we learn was the cause of Nicky's brain damage, sustained from the beatings he gave his son as a boy.
Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) I find Daniel's drag alter ego amusing on its own terms, and perhaps you do too. So it's easy to lose sight of why he had to resort to this ruse: because as a father, he's an irresponsible goof. Worse, when his wife Miranda (Sally Field) complains about having to always be the grownup, he has the nerve to complain that she's no fun anymore. Of course she isn't, she's the one paying the bills. Imagine trying to get out of work, racing to get home for your kid's birthday, and finding the house has become a zoo, literally, and your husband telling you, "We were gonna clean it up before you got home!" (On the assumption she'd be working late. Thanks for that dig, asshole. No wonder she dumped him.)
[side note: Mara Wilson, who played the Hillard's 6 year old daughter, wrote a very sharp, funny column about her experiences as a child actor. It's worth checking out. ]
Guy Quoyle (John Dunsworth, played by Andrew Fowler in flashback) in The Shipping News (2001): Made his son feel worthless, even when the kid nearly drowned while learning to swim. He was also a terrible brother, having raped his sister when she was twelve, which explains her treatment of his ashes after he dies. He was also universally despised by the entire town, so there's that.
Tom Lagatos (Steven Charles Fletcher) in Dorian Blues (2004): So reactionary he made the Great Santini seem like the dad on "Family Ties". When his son Dorian, at age seven, begins having anxieties about the possibility of one day going to war, his father assures him, "You're not going to Canada. You're GOING TO WAR. And you might get killed, but you'll get killed like a man!"
Gerry Ryan (James Caan) in Mercy (2009): Advice to father's out there: when your son is grieving the death of his fiancee, which he feels responsible for, and wants to talk about it, the appropriate response is not to complain about the way he's being a buzzkill.
(a special thank you to Anntichrist S. Coulter for recommending this sleeper to me. Thanks, Annti!)
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in There Will Be Blood (2007): Adopted a deaf orphan to improve his standing as a businessman, using the boy as a prop, more or less. When the boy grows up to be an adult with ideas of his own, Plainview mocks his son's handicap and reveals his origins -- "There is none of me in you!" which can only be a compliment, considering what a rat bastard he is. There's also the matter of beating his son's brother-in-law to death with a bowling pin, which is bound to make the next Thanksgiving dinner a bit awkward.
WORST TV DADS:
Chester Tate (Robert Mandan) on "Soap": A serial adulterer and embezzler, he also murders his daughter Corinne's boyfriend, and, at the wedding of his daughter Eunice, hooks up with (and eventually marries) the maid of honor. When he's missing and presumed dead, the family holds a memorial service, and nobody -- including his children -- can think of one good thing to say about him.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) on "Mad Men": It's a close call between him and ex-wife Betty (January Jones) as to who the worse parent is, but I think Don has the edge, if only because he's spent a lifetime deceiving his kids with a false identity. (The only thing Betty pretends to be is happy, and nobody buys it.) Small wonder then, that when daughter Sally catches a woman breaking into the apartment, she half-believes the woman's claim that she was Don's nanny. When she calls her father to see if the story checks out, she sighs, exasperated, and realizes, "I don't know you at all." Words I'm sure she'll live to regret after the latest episode where she caught him banging the next-door neighbor.
(Hey, that's two shows featuring a character named Peter Campbell. I don't know what that signifies, just thought I'd note the coincidence.)
Ryan Howard (B. J. Novak) on "The Office": He didn't become a father until the final episode of the series, when he turns up at Dwight and Angela's wedding with a newborn in tow. When he reunites with ex-girlfriend Kelly (Mindy Kaling), the two decide to run off together, and he ditches the baby, leaving him with one of the guests, who, understandably, calls child services. Considering what a complete and utter little shit Ryan was throughout the series, we can't help thinking the baby might be better off.
and last, but not least:
Happy Father's Day to all the World O' Crap dads out there. I promise you did a better job with your kids than those guys did!