After a long battle with lung cancer – a battle I assumed he would win because, gosh, I always assumed he was tougher than Death – my father (third from left, after me and my son) died yesterday. And I have to tell you folks: It’s all his fault. Yes, he bought me a second-hand typewriter when I was at an impressionable age – not quite yet in high school -- and he encouraged me to write. Little did he realize that, because I was a faithful reader of Castle of Frankenstein magazine at the time, I would want to write mini-reviews of horror films (just like those in the magazine). That, alas, was enough to get me addicted to writing about movies, and I’ve been at it ever since.
My father was born in County Sligo, Ireland. When he was very young, his father felt compelled to leave his family and move to the United States, lest he run afoul of authorities because of his support for the IRA (an organization my father supported a great deal more than he probably should have). When the family farm went bust, my father decided – at age 16 – to start working aboard merchant ships. He served in the British Merchant Marine during WWII, and was aboard a convoy ship carrying troops and supplies on D-Day – a fact he never shared with me until long after the release of Saving Private Ryan. Oddly enough, he was much more willing to talk about why he wound up serving in the Korean War after moving to the United States: He got drunk one night, wrapped a car (not his own) around a tree, and was told by a judge that he would serve hard time unless he immediately enlisted. (While in the Army, he often told me, he witnessed the early integration of the Armed Services – and smoked an inordinate amount of marijuana.)
My father was a merchant seaman – and a proud member of the National Maritime Union – for more than 30 years. He remained an unrepentant Old School Leftie throughout his entire life – during the Vietnam War, he offered to buy me a plane ticket to Canada if I were drafted – and he always took great delight in knowing that his eldest child somehow managed to sustain the scam of getting paid to go to the movies. As for his own cinematic preferences: He thought David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago was the greatest movie ever made. After he fell in love with my stepmother-to-be, and she moved back to Liverpool during the latter 1960s because she found it impossible to endure the sultry summers of my native New Orleans, he spent an inordinate amount of time moping around the house while listening to the ultra-schmaltzy “Laura’s Theme” on the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack. Thank God they got back together; he ultimately opted to live, and eventually die, in Liverpool. Even Maurice Jarre, composer of the Oscar-winning Zhivago score, sympathized with me when I told him years later how much his music had begun to grate on me during my dad’s deep blue funk.
My father also once told me that he really, really enjoyed William Wyler’s The Collector (1965) “because the guy got away with it in the end.” (I’m not sure I want to know why this pleased him so much, but I must agree: Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar have never been better.) And I think he was never prouder of me than when I was able to take him to a supper club performance of his favorite comic, Red Skelton, which I reviewed at The Blue Room in New Orleans.
But my fondest movie memory that I associate with my father involves, of all things, Last Tango in Paris. As we left the theater after seeing Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial 1973 drama, he turned to me and said, only half-jokingly: “Joseph, a lot of women who see this movie tonight with their husbands – they’re gonna go home and hide the butter.”
My father was a rebel in ways too numerous to mention, and I would like to think I inherited some of his feisty spirit. During the late 1950s and early ’60, he often would bring some of his shipmates home for family meals at our Ninth Ward home in New Orleans. (Don’t worry – the house survived Katrina.) You must understand that many of these shipmates were Panamanian, and were, well, shall we say darker-complexioned than many of our neighbors. It’s not that my father was unaware of what was and wasn’t considered socially acceptable behavior during the Bad Old Days of segregation. Quite the contrary: He knew he was pissing off some folks, and he didn’t care. (Neither did my dear departed mom, God bless her.) Some people talk the talk. My father walked the walk. As Hamlet said: He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.