With Father's Day upon us, we salute some of the finest fictional dads to grace the silver screen, and a few of the less well-hinged ones, too.
By
Stephen A. Russell

5 Sep 2014 - 10:59 AM  UPDATED 29 Aug 2016 - 11:15 AM

Rad Dads

1. Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Fathers don’t come much nobler than Peck’s Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s seminal novel. Finch, a single parent and lawyer, will do everything in his power to set the best example for his kids, Scout and Jem. His firm belief in racial equality, a rare trait in 1930s Deep South, is evident in his staunch defence of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of rape.

 

2. Steve Martin, Parenthood (1989)

Ron Howard’s Parenthood was a touchstone for all troubled suburban teens. In a film packed full of nuanced performances, Steve Martin puts in an incredibly moving turn as Gil Buckman, a dad who’s trying to climb the corporate ladder, but refuses to do so at the expense of quality time with his kids; something he missed out on with his cranky old pa (Jason Robards). Gil even keeps his cool in a dream sequence when his son Kevin, ensconced in a school bell tower with a rifle, shoots a megaphone out of his hand. “Nice shot, son!”

 

3. Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful (1997)

As well as writing and directing, Roberto Benigni also starred in this controversial holocaust film about a father who comes up with increasingly ingenious ways to hide the daily horrors from his young son when they’re incarcerated in a concentration camp. Scoring three Oscars, Life Is Beautiful is a powerful statement about the lengths a father will go to make his kid smile. “Maybe this is all a dream, and in the morning, mommy will wake us up with milk and cookies.”

 

4. Lamberto Maggiorani, Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Another tearjerker, Vittorio De Sica’s moving Bicycle Thieves is set in the shattered and impoverished remains of post-WWII Italy. Maggiorani plays a dad desperate to find a job who responds to a request for a worker with a bike. He gives everything he has to reclaim his from the pawnshop, only for it to be stolen. This sparks an incredibly touching father and son journey as they go in search of the bike, with the father increasingly despondent, and his son ever more hopeful. The final scene is both devastating and triumphant.

 

5. Spencer Tracy, Father of the Bride (1950)

Steve Martin has to stand aside for this one, as Spencer Tracy is magnificent as the original Stanley T. Banks, the flustered father in question spiralling through the gamut of emotions from swollen pride to rife jealousy,  abundant love and fury. Joan Bennett is his wife and Elizabeth Taylor the daughter getting hitched, and it all adds up to a real gem.

 

Daft Dads

6. Robin Williams, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Williams may have checked out way to soon, but he left us with an incredible comic legacy. Chris Columbus’ 1993 hit saw Williams assume the role of an unemployed voice actor separating from his wife, played by Sally Field. In an effort to stay close to their three kids, he hits on the unlikely scheme of donning drag and assuming the role of an ageing, Scottish and decidedly female nanny. It might not be the most sure-fire plan, but there’s no doubting the results are hilarious, burning boobs and all!

 

7. Chevy Chase, National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Those giants of ‘80s cinema, Harold Ramis and John Hughes, teamed up to kick off the National Lampoon juggernaut, starring Chevy Chase as the irascible Clark Griswald. Though it’s clear he loves his family dearly, enough to hold at gunpoint a rollercoaster operator who won’t let them ride, woe betide anyone who whines about the car ride to Wally World. His response is far from Disney-appropriate.  “I’m gonna have fun, and you’re gonna have fun, we are all gonna have so much fucking fun we’ll need plastic surgery to remove our smiles. You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes.”

 

8. Rick Moranis, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

As far as barmy dads go, Rick Moranis’ turn in Joe Johnston’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids has to be up (or should that be down?) there. Hapless inventor Wayne Szalinski creates a shrink ray that mostly succeeds in blowing things up until an accident with a baseball inadvertently miniaturises both his kids and those next-door. The mini-kids then embark on an arduous journey across the oversized backyard, attacked by bees and scorpions while hitching a lift on a friendly ant and their pet dog.

 

Suave Dads

9. Sean Connery, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Harrison Ford and Sean Connery make for a fantastically cranky odd couple as the father/son Jones duo in the third - and what should have been final - instalment of the Indiana franchise. Connery, as Professor Henry Jones, is wickedly smooth and shows his son a trick or two, all the while taunting him with the term, “junior”. Connery manages to out-charm Ford, delivering a particularly sharp line when Indy asks his dad how he knew his latest love interest was actually a Nazi in disguise. Henry replies, roguishly, “She talks in her sleep.”

 

10. George Clooney, The Descendants (2011)

The Hollywood heartthrob of choice for folks of a certain age, Clooney stars as a father reconnecting with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) as his wife lies comatose after a speedboat accident, in the follow up to writer/director Alexander Payne’s Sideways. It’s a little bit schmaltzy, but that comes with the territory, and the Cloonster is certainly smooth.

 

Embarrassing Dads

11. Eugene Levy, American Pie (1999)

There comes a time when every father has to sit down with his son and have The Talk about the birds and the bees. It's never the easiest of conversations, and Eugene Levy is excruciatingly hilarious in American Pie as he doles out copies of Hustler to his son Jim (Jason Biggs) while explaining the workings of a clitoris just before family dinner.

 

12. Homer, The Simpsons Movie (2007)

When it comes to embarrassing dads, Homer Simpson wins the world cup of doh! Their only big screen outing to date saw Springfield trapped under a great glass dome, Stephen King-style, and the writers ran riot with the possibilities. Homer's reputation as a disaster magnet is summed up in Bart’s exasperation that Homer has, “doomed us all. Again.” It's a classic moment, as is the ridiculousness of Homer’s ceiling-mucking Spider Pig.

 

'Don't Mess With' Dads

13. Mel Gibson, Ransom (1996)

Some dads will stop at nothing to protect their family, as is the case with Mel Gibson’s Tom Mullen in Ron Howard’s kidnap thriller. When his son is snatched during a family outing to Central Park with wife Kate (Rene Russo), he embarks on an all-out assault on Gary Sinise’s crooked cop. Turns out Tom’s not squeaky clean either, having bribed a union official, but his televised decision to pay the ransom money to anyone who brings in his son’s abductor, dead or alive, is powerful stuff.

 

14. Song Kang-Ho, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)

Korean cinema is littered with the imaginatively slain bodies of vengeance victims, and Oldboy director Park Chan-Wook is the master. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance has a wicked pivot, with not one but two vigilantes. It starts out with Shin Ha-Kyun’s deaf and mute Ryu seeking justice for his sister, made sick by the terrible working conditions in the factory owned by Park (Kang-Ho). Ryu decides to fund her kidney transplant and get back at Park by kidnapping his daughter. When that dumb plan goes horribly wrong and the kid dies, it’s Park who goes on the rampage, bringing the gory payback.

 

Bad Dads

15. Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972)

Like many a father before him, Brando’s Don Vito Corleone just wants to pass on the family business to his favoured son, in this case Michael (Al Pacino). It’s just that that business, so majestically portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, happens to involve a good deal of gang warfare, bombings, garrotting and other assorted executions, all in the name of the family’s honour, of course, and a rather warped view of respectability.

 

16. Rodney Dangerfield, Natural Born Killers (1994)

When it comes to setting an example, Dangerfield’s terrifyingly drunken and lascivious lout of a father, in a surreally trashy sitcom segue within Oliver Stone’s OTT Natural Born Killers, goes some way to explaining the obvious glee with which his daughter, Juliette Lewis’ Mallory, takes up serial killing with partner Mickey (Woody Harrleson) further down the tracks.

 

17. John Huston, Chinatown (1974)

The bad dad and dodgy business dealer at the heart of the mystery behind Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Huston’s Noah Cross enjoys precious little screen time but certainly leaves his nasty mark, as he’s pursued by Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled private eye. Raping your own daughter (Faye Dunaway) and fathering a kid with her is shockingly evil.

 

18. Jack Nicholson, The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson’s crazed performance as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s chilling horror novel is seared into cinematic history. Even before he goes off the spirit-induced deep end, Jack wasn’t exactly the most attentive father, but once they’re snowed in at the Overlook Hotel, his attempt to slaughter his wife and bury an axe in his young son’s head is poor form, as a child-rearing strategy.

 

19. Ray Wise, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Ray Wise’s Leyland Palmer is another prime contender in the atrociously bad parenting stakes. Meddling execs forced David Lynch to unveil Laura Palmer’s creepy Bob-possessed dad as the murderer who left her wrapped in plastic, and the seminal small screen surreal drama never recovered from the dodgy disclosure. It was cancelled at the end of the second series. Thankfully, we were treated to one last bite of the cherry with this big screen outing, with Bowie in tow, which filled in Laura’s final, fateful hours.

 

20. Darth Vader, Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)

Bad dads don’t get much worse than leather-clad Sith Lord, Darth Vader. He force-choked the mother of his twin kids to death in the prequels, prompting Obi-Wan Kenobi to hide the infants on separate planets across the galaxy.  Undeterred, Vader hunts them down, standing by idly as Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin blows Leia’s adoptive home Alderaan to smithereens. Luke bails out on their reunion via a quite literal pit of despair, minus a hand. After all the bad blood between them, it’s no wonder the Skywalker twins turned out a bit disturbed. The less said about that icky incest kiss, the better…

Watch a collection of free Father's Day movies at SBS On Demand