20 Best and Worst Movie Fathers - Rolling Stone
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20 Best and Worst Movie Fathers

From Don Corleone to Darth Vader, celebrate Father’s Day with great (and horrible) screen dads

Darth Vader

We learn a lot from the movies — how to kiss, how to smoke, how to blow up a Death Star, how to organize a casino heist with a ragtag group of fellow thieves. And for many fathers out there, films can help them figure out how to be a great dad by following in the footsteps of some incredible screen patriarchs. They can also pick up plenty of tips on what not to do when it comes to raising their kids from some of cinema’s truly horrible dads — the kind of guys who make a strong case for the fact that some people simply aren’t fit to be parents.

Since we’re celebrating the one day out the year when fathers get big ups from strangers and family alike, we’re breaking down 20 of the best and worst dads in movie history. From here to paternity, these celluloid sperm donors demonstrate the highs and lows of onscreen Pops culture.

Worst: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

He just wants his boy to join the family business — what’s so wrong with that? Well, for starters, most dads won’t cut their son’s hand off with a light saber just because the kid gave him some pushback. After Darth Vader’s declaration of patriarchy, you probably heard the shocked gasps even if you’re were hanging out in a galaxy far, far away. This is the moment that the pop saga took a quick swerve into Greek tragedy territory, proving that the franchise’s heavy-breathing heavy was more than just the embodiment of cosmic evil — he was a lousy dad so intent on establishing an empire (and the Empire) that he’d “destroy” the last of the Skywalker males. And just because Darth has a change of heart later on does not excuse the whole hand incident or that he tortured his royal daughter with a floating syringe-robot thing.

Best: ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ (1993)

Gents, ask yourselves: How far would you go to see your estranged kids more? Would you, say, dress up as a matronly British nanny and risk setting your prosthetic breasts on fire just so you could keep a closer eye on them? Robin Williams‘ best-known role (non-Mork division) finds the funnyman going full Mary Poppins after marital strife throws salt in his dad game; if he’s got to don the world’s dowdiest drag-queen outfit and risk get hit on by randy bus drivers, hey, aren’t his children worth it? And if you guessed that he becomes a better father by the end of this experience, we commend you for narrative-predicting savvy.

Worst: ‘This Boy’s Life’ (1993)

You know that Robert De Niro’s seemingly nice suitor for Leonardo Di Caprio’s single mom is bad news from the moment you see him; the question becomes, how soon before he reveals what a sadistic son of a bitch he is, and what happens to the boy after that. The answer: a lot of screaming, violence, and requests for the shutting of pie-holes. “I know a thing or two about a thing or two,” De Niro’s stepdad keeps saying, but the only thing he really knows is how to lash out and destroy everyone around him. He’s one of the great domestic monsters of American moviemaking, a first-rate practitioner of berating and beatings — as well as someone designed to make your father look like a freakin’ saint by comparison.

Best: ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989)

“Hello, Junior.” From the moment that Sean Connery’s Dr. Henry Jones steps into this chapter in the continuing adventures of Indiana Jones, you can see where his son gets his roguish charm, his penchant for derring do and his sheer cajones. He may irritate his globetrotting progeny (and have better luck with the ladies), but Henry does get them out of several jams, with some notable help from a convenient flock of seagulls. Plus look how upset he is when he thinks he’s lost him, and how proud he is when the younger Jones figures out he can use a passing pole to joust a Nazi off his motorcycle! They may bicker like an old married couple, but there’s a real bond between the old man and Junior.

Worst: ‘Say Anything…’ (1989)

He gets his daughter — school valedictorian Diane Court — not one but two graduation presents. He and his kid finish each other’s stories. (“You two are amazing . . . I’m not even like that with anybody”). He possesses a stellar jukebox, and his Steely Dan renditions are on point. So why is John Mahoney’s somewhat overprotective Mr. Court — the guy who says the title phrase — on the bad side of this list? Because he betrays his child’s trust, which actually might be worse than simply being a horrible father outright. We can forgive him for the guilt trips and trying to break up Diane and Lloyd Dobbler via the gift of a pen. (A pen!) But when he lies to her after she finds the money he stole and then gives her lousy justifications like “I treated them better than their families” . . . nope. Sorry, man.

Best: ‘Juno’ (2007)

Before he tortured Miles Teller‘s wannabe Buddy Rich in Whiplash, Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons demonstrated a gentler paternal side when it came to extreme situations. In fact, given all the slightly outrageous, slang-heavy moments as Jason Reitman’s story of a pregnant teen, Simmons’ amiable dad is arguably the most realistic character in the whole movie. He receives the news of his daughter’s pregnancy with shock, disappointment and a slight sense of exasperation; ultimately, however, he loves his “Junebug” and lets her known that he’s there for her no matter what. He even calls her a “little Viking.” That is our fatherhood tempo, Simmons!

Worst: ‘Chinatown’ (1974)

Ah, Noah Cross. . .you old Beelzebub, you! The most powerful man in Southern California circa the late 1930s has his reasons for tracking down his ex-business partner’s “mistress” — just as his daughter, Evelyn, has her own reasons for wanting the old man to stay as far away as possible. John Huston’s decrepit millionaire isn’t just the most reptilian character in Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s portrait of Hell-Ay’s institutional corruption; he’s also a man whose secrets hint at a legacy of sickness and rot at the family tree’s roots. And once the beans get spilled, no amount of “it’s Chinatown” mutterings can make you forget what you know or keep you from creeping out at the sight of him.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matt Lankes/Ifc Prods/Detour Filmproduction/Kobal/Shutterstock (5884872ai)Ellar Coltrane, Ethan HawkeBoyhood - 2014Director: Richard LinklaterIfc Productions/Detour FilmproductionUSAScene StillDrama

Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke

Matt Lankes/Ifc Prods/Detour Films

Best: ‘Boyhood’ (2014)

‘Fess up: You totally thought Ethan Hawke’s muscle-car driving dude was a deadbeat dad at first, right? There are many, many joys in Richard Linklater’s reelin’-in-the-years chronicle of a childhood, but one of the more surprising ones is the way Mason’s father gradually reveals himself to be a stand-up guy. He may be incredibly immature and doesn’t spend as much time with his kids as he or they would like — but when he’s with him, the man is 100% present. Also, when was the last time your dad gave you a mixtape that was the greatest solo hits of the respective Beatles? Exactly.

Worst: ‘Magnolia’ (1999)

Credit where it’s due: Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about SoCal lives of quiet desperation gives viewers several flavors of bad fathers to choose from. There’s the stage dad of quiz-show prodigy Stanley Spector, who won’t let his kid use the bathroom. There’s Jimmy Gator, who may or may not have done inappropriate things to his coke-addict daughter. And finally, there’s Earl Partridge, the terminally ill patriarch who had abandoned his family decades earlier and turned his son, Frank “T.J.” Mackey, into a toxic alpha-douche. Take your pick! No matter your preference, you’re getting the bottom of the paternal barrel.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock (5884107o)Nicolas CageRaising Arizona - 1987Director: Joel Coen20th Century FoxUSAScene StillComedyArizona Junior

Raising Arizona - 1987

Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Best: ‘Raising Arizona’ (1987)

“What, are you kiddin’? We got ourselves a family here!” Ex-con and Hawaiian shirt aficionado H.I. McDunnough isn’t the biological dad of Nathan Jr. — that would be Nathan Arizona, the furniture magnate who’s had his namesake abducted. (Given that he’s just had quintuplets, the McDunnoughs figure he won’t miss one of them.) H.I. eventually realizes it was a bad idea, and everything is eventually returned to normal. But given the tenacity which Nicolas Cage’s felon demonstrates when it comes to recovering a lost bundle of Huggies, and the bravery he shows when he takes on that “warthog from hell” to keep the baby safe, we saying he’s qualifies as first-rate father nonetheless. Let’s hope your dream came true, Mr. McDunnough, Utah residence and all.

The Palmers


Worst: ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ (1992)

Fans of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking TV show know the demons (literally) that lurk within Laura Palmer’s pops — and how his actions play into the larger narrative are front and center in viewers’ minds when he shows up in this big-screen prequel. But as the above sequence at the dinner table shows, Mr. Palmer doesn’t need to be under the influence of otherworldly evil to be a toxic presence. Hey, Laura should have washed her hands before dinner; we support being sanitary when it comes to meals. But did you have to be such a dick about it, Leland?

Best: ‘Taken’ (2008)

We’ll let Liam Neeson “take” it (jokes!) from here: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know you what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you that I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills. . .skills that I have acquired over a very long career. . .skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t: I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.” Most. Badass. Screen. Dad. Ever!

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James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/

Worst: ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ (2001)

A wise Russian once said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way — and for the Tenebaums, their unique dysfunctional despair seems to stem largely from their bastard of a paterfamilias. Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum is barely a presence in his kids’ life after an acrimonious divorce; decades later, when he gets kicked out of the hotel he’s been living at, the old man pretends to have stomach cancer (!) so he can worm his way back in to the old house. Redemption lays on the horizon, but the shameless emotional manipulation he puts his now-grown brood through marks Royal as a real piece of work. Also, shooting one prepubescent son with a BB rifle and then taking another to dogfights? Not cool.

Albert Brooks Finding Nemo


Best: ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003)

He swam across an ocean, people! To find his son! The clownfish was overprotective, sure, but when his pride and joy got the net treatment, who suffered through touchy-feely sharks, daffy regal blue tangs and other dangers to rescue him? Marlin did! If we were fish, we’d want our dad to be like him. And to sound like Albert Brooks.

Worst: ‘The Great Santini’ (1979)

It’s the basketball to the head that does it. If you watch this portrait of a repressed, hard-ass marine who runs his household as if it were a regiment, you’ll see Robert Duvall’s character goad his 18-year-old kid into getting drunk (“There’s those that got ’em and those that don’t. . .gonads!”), verbally abuse his family and force his son to punch another kid during a b-ball tournament. But it’s Duvall and Michael O’Keefe’s “friendly” game of hoops in the backyard truly earns him a spot on this list. After losing a one-on-one match to his kid, the military man starts taunting the “mama’s boy” and repeatedly bounces the ball off the teenager’s cranium. “Sore loser” doesn’t begin to describe him — though “crap dad with serious anger issues” comes a bit closer.

Best: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962)

Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch has been making normal dads look bad since the early Sixties, and though Harper Lee based the character on her own father, you’d have thought she had the authoritative actor in mind when she dreamed up the Southern lawyer. Of course he looks larger than life, given that the film essentially takes place through Scout’s eyes. But in addition to be morally steadfast, fearless in the face of an unruly mob and a crack shot when a rabid dog is around, Atticus is also sensitive to his daughter’s confusion about the social upheaval happening in their small town. And he’s always got time to patiently explain to his upset child what a “compromise” is and why school is a necessity. This is what a role model looks like. We’re getting a little choked up just thinking about him.

Worst: ‘The Stepfather’ (1987)

Long before he was Lost‘s resident bald, manly hatch-discoverer, Terry O’Quinn’s best-known role was in this underrated slasher gem, in which his titular character has a knack for insinuating himself into dad-less families — and then disposing of them before moving on to the next. (We’ll contend that his introduction is still one of the best horror-movie openings ever.) “Father knows best,” he’ll chirpily say at the dinner table of his latest victims-to-be, but when Pops is a complete psycho prone to ranting in his woodshop, the maxim needs to be taken with a boulder-sized grain of salt. Oh, and just because you built a really nice birdhouse with your stepdaughter does not excuse you trying to murder her later. Bad dad move, dude.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock (5883239o)Ice Cube, Laurence FishburneBoyz n The Hood / Boyz In The Hood - 1991Director: John SingletonColumbiaUSAScene StillBoyz'n the Hood, la loi de la rue

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock (5883239o) Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne Boyz n The Hood / Boyz In The Hood - 1991 Director: John Singleton Columbia USA Scene Still Boyz'n the Hood, la loi de la rue


Best: ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (1991)

Give it up for Furious Styles! The young, black hero of John Singleton’s debut feature needs a stable, guiding presence to keep him from falling prey to the pitfalls of life in South Central — and Laurence Fishburne’s wisdom-spouting dad is just the man for the job. He’s not just a pillar of the community and a man who sees through the bullshit (“Why is it that there’s a gun shop on almost every corner? For the same reason there’s almost always a liquor store on almost every corner”); Furious is also the kind of guy who will lend an ear and a shoulder to cry on for Cuba Gooding Jr’s confused teenager between doling out maxims. “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.” He’s living proof that it’s true.

Worst: ‘The Shining’ (1980)

Look, we’re not going to lie: We wish our dad could do half as killer an Ed McMahon impersonation as Jack Torrance. But no matter how drunk (or ghost-drunk) our father got, he never blamed us for how his novel wasn’t coming along, or murdered our middle-aged psychic friends with an ax, or chased us through a snow-covered topiary maze. Unlike the slowly unraveling patriarch in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, our dad never tried to “correct” us while rivers of blood gushed out of haunted elevator doors. So you win this one by a nose, Pops. You have earned the cologne and/or necktie we’re giving you. Happy Father’s Day.

Best: ‘The Godfather’ (1972)

A man who doesn’t spend time with his family, we’re told, can never be a real man — something no one would ever accuse Vito Corleone of. It’s easy to forget that the gangster with the bulldog jowls initially got involved with “this thing of ours” to provide for his growing brood (they don’t call the Mob “a family” for no reason), and that even when it was just business, the Don took things personally when it came to his offspring. Particularly his son Michael, a war hero who Vito saw as the ultimate chance to achieve the American Dream: the child who has a better life than his pops. Watch the love and affection in Marlon Brando’s eyes as he talk with Al Pacino’s future corporate capo in the garden, but check out the disappointment in himself that he expresses over Michael not getting to be “Governor Corleone, Senator Corleone.” This was a man who would do anything for his kids. If a horse’s head had to end up in some big shot’s bed in the process, so be it.

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