Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


My Dad led what could be described as a conventional life, even thought I think he was far from a conventional man. He worked his way through college, found employment in the shipping and then the textile industries. He started his own business. He went to work and came home every day at the same times. He never worked weekends. He kept his work life and his home life separate. And like most men of his generation, he prioritized supporting a family over other more personal goals. It was not until late in his life that I learned he had secretly harbored a desire to be an architect. He was a talented amateur artist, leaning toward emulating his childhood heroes like comic book illustrators Jack Kirby and Bill Everett. He designed the addition to our house. But his real life was his home and his family, and he was happy to do what was necessary to support and protect them.

However, it is no surprise that my Dad and others might have found the life of Murray N. Burns diverting or even appealing. As portrayed by Jason Robards on the Broadway stage and then in the movie version of playwright Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns,” Murray is a charming, charismatic, witty, iconoclastic, irreverent, bohemian non-conformist, redeemed by his affection for the 12 year-old nephew Nick that he has raised since his mother abandoned him. Together they live an unconventional life in a one-room New York City apartment as cluttered, eclectic and in disarray as Murray himself. As the movie opens Burns has been unemployed for months, having quit his demeaning job as joke writer for a television show aptly titled "Chuckles the Chipmunk.” He has never officially adopted his nephew, and the two draw the attention of social workers who threaten to take the boy into foster care unless Murray can somehow prove his fitness as a guardian.

“A Thousand Clowns” might be described as a coming-of-age story about a thirty-something man. But in the end, “A Thousand Clowns” is about parenting. And once Murray is convinced that he has provided Nick with the foundation to think for himself and not become “a chair,” he happily enters the rat race he has so abhorred for the sake of the “son” he loves. Murray is among the ranks of other non-conformist but ultimately dedicated movie parents and parental figures from others of my Dad’s favorite movies, most aptly Frank Sinatra in “A Hole in the Head” and Cary Grant in “Father Goose.”

I only briefly knew my father’s father, but I have the impression he may as well have been a bit of an endearing small-town rouge. And I like to think that my own relationship with my father somewhat mirrors a small portion of the fun and friendship these movies relate, even though my father’s life evidences none of the irresponsibility these characters possess.

“A Thousand Clowns” is ably directed by live television veteran Fred Coe, a producer and director known for discovering and nurturing extraordinary writing talent (Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, JP Miller, Herb Gardner). He attempted to “open up” the one-set play with punctuating and exuberant location excursions, shot with New Wave inspired visuals and sounds. But derived as it is from a Tony-nominated stage play, the movie maintains a talky and hightened theatricality, particularly in performance, that is appropriate to the material. While some might consider this to be Robard’s movie, it is really the perfect balance of well-developed, three-dimensional characters and endearing performances that elevates “A Thousand Clowns.”

Barry Gordon delivers a career making performance as the precocious Nick. It is shocking that as he continues to work to this day he has never been given the chance at another role as meaty and substantial as the one in “A Thousand Clowns.” Martin Balsam won his only Oscar as Murray’s conventional and concerned brother Arnold. Barbara Harris’ film debut brings her signature quirkiness to the role of the neophyte social worker pulled in by the appeal of Murray’s world. And famed Broadway director Gene Saks gives one of his rare film performances, bringing memorable menace and smarminess to "Chuckles the Chipmunk.”

But perhaps the most moving, eloquent and understated performance comes from William Daniels in only his second film appearance, two years before he would appear as Dustin Hoffman’s father in “The Graduate.” As Albert Amundsen, the stiff, stuffy, cold, humorless, by-the-book social worker who eventually threatens to take Nick from his home with Murray, Daniels plays what is essentially the heavy of the film. But author Gardner and performer Daniels bring a pathos and humanity to the character that borders on heart-breaking. He also has one of the best lines in the movie: "You are not a person, Mr. Burns. You are an experience."

Daniels went on to memorable performances in movies, television, and on the stage. He originated the part of John Adams in the Broadway musical “1776” and repeated the role in the film version. He played John Quincy Adams in the PBS production of “The Adams Chronicles,” won two Emmy’s as the caustic but well-meaning Dr. Mark Craig on the hit TV series “St. Elsewhere," was beloved of a generationas teacher Mr. Feeny in ABC's "Boy Meets World" and its Disney Channel sequel "Girl Meets World," and, to my Dad’s delight, was the voice of KITT the car in the original “Knight Rider” series.

You can watch "A Thousand Clowns" with some regularity on TCM.

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© 2009 Edward Bowen