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To Me, He Was Just Dad
Stories of Growing Up with Famous Fathers
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“Those searching for a moving Father’s Day gift need look no further.”
Men like John Wayne and John Lennon, Nolan Ryan and Bruce Lee, Cesar Chavez, Christopher Reeve, and Miles Davis have touched the lives of millions. But at home, to their children, they were not their public personas. They were Dad. Maybe Davis didn’t leave the office at five o’clock to come home and play catch with his son Erin, but the man we see through Erin’s eyes is so alive, so real, so not the “king of cool” (he taught his son to box, made a killer pot of chili, watched MTV alongside him) that it brings us to a whole new appreciation for the artist.
Each of these forty first-person narratives—intimate, heartfelt, unvarnished, surprising, and profoundly universal—shows us not only a very different view of a figure we thought we knew but also a wholly fresh and moving idea of what it means to be a father.
My Father the All-Star
Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. in New York City in 1947, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player a record six times and is the league’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points. In addition to being an athlete, Abdul-Jabbar is an actor and author. In 2016, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. He has five children, Habiba, Sultana, Kareem Jr., Amir, and Adam.
Everyone in los angeles got swept up in Lakers Mania in the early 1980s. Magic Johnson and my dad were huge celebrities. But they were also really different men, and my father didn’t benefit from the comparison. Magic was friendly and well-liked—he was always having parties at his huge house or throwing them at Lakers owner Jerry Buss’s estate in Beverly Hills. My dad lived in Bel-Air. We didn’t even know the neighbors. Win or lose, my dad didn’t want to be bothered. He wanted to go home and be by himself.
The flashiest thing in my father’s house was an Andy Warhol portrait of him based on a Polaroid Warhol had taken. Otherwise the place was typical for the era. It was a one-story bungalow with Persian carpets everywhere, a Jacuzzi in the bathroom, and a room full of records. I have a lot of memories of my father spending hours in that room, listening to music, or in his bedroom, watching television. I grew up mostly with my mom, but my siblings and I spent summers with my dad. He often seemed distant and disconnected from us children, even though he complained bitterly about our mom having been awarded custody of us.
My brothers would try to bond with my dad by listening to jazz with him. I never did. I hate jazz. Part of the reason is that my dad would put on discordant acid jazz and speed down Sunset Boulevard in his Mercedes-Benz. I associate those old albums with feeling queasy. Weird episodes like that defined our relationship when I was young.
My dad wasn’t just weird with me. He was weird with everyone. He wasn’t a status-conscious person who performed for other famous people. His closest friends weren’t who you’d expect. They were Lou Adler, who produced The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Richard Rubinstein, who made Pet Sematary. That wasn’t because my dad wanted to be an actor. He never took an acting class, never asked Lou or Richard for roles (though Richard did cast him as a genie in an episode of Tales from the Darkside). He just got along well with them. Richard shared my dad’s love of the Dune series and eventually bought the film rights to make a miniseries. Lou, who produced Carole King’s Tapestry, also owned the Roxy Theatre, a famous LA nightclub, so he and my dad bonded over music. Richard and Lou accepted that my dad didn’t understand the concept of returning favors. The people who stayed friends with my dad all really wanted to be able to call him a friend.
If my father had lived a normal life, I think he would have caught on more quickly that he didn’t have normal relationships with people. But because he was very tall and very famous and black, he didn’t have normal relationships with anyone anyway. No one knew how to handle him, but they wanted to be his friend—even if he treated them poorly or was aloof, which he often was. Since he was that way with everyone, I didn’t take his behavior personally. Nevertheless, it hurt.
Even before my parents divorced, the NBA schedule kept my dad away from home. During my childhood, there wasn’t a continuity to his presence. Though I vaguely knew that his whereabouts were tied to the basketball season, mostly it felt like he just showed up and then was gone. This makes it hard to talk about my father, since building the story is like sorting through random film clips. I remember attending the premiere of Airplane! with him and thinking that we were just going to a movie. My siblings and I tried to play some basketball with him, but he wouldn’t let us get the ball. My dad taught me to ride a bike, and he taught me to play baseball. He did those things. He just disappeared for months in between.
Still, I was proud of him. I called him Big Daddy when I was really young and basked in his stature. One time when I was playing at the park, a boy got on the slide in front of me. He stood at the top of the ladder and said I couldn’t come up. I was upset, so I told him I was going to get my daddy. And I did. My father showed up, and suddenly the kid was looking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, this seven-foot-tall man, straight in the eyes. My dad was very matter-of-fact. He told the kid he could slide down the slide or get knocked down it. My dad would never have hit the kid, but for me, his daughter, he could be threatening when he wanted to be.
Habiba (age sixteen), Sultana (age nine), and Kareem, 1988
My brothers and sister were willing to remain silent in order to get along with my dad; I wasn’t, which contributed to his impression that I was a troublesome child. For example, I’d demand to know why he didn’t call on my birthday. Whenever he failed to live up to my expectations, I would get emotional and tell him, which made him uncomfortable.
Changing my name didn’t help, either. My siblings and I were born into the Hanafi Muslim community outside Washington, DC, which was intensely isolated. We grew up observant, but I don’t consider myself Muslim. The name Abdul-Jabbar was, from my perspective, a name handed to my father by a spiritual leader of a religion toward which I felt ambivalent. When I was seventeen, I made the decision to change my last name to Alcindor—my father’s family name—and asked my mom to sign the legal documents. A story about it ran in the National Enquirer, and my dad threw a fit. To this day, I don’t think he’s forgiven me, but I hope he’s made peace with it.
For years, my father was at the epicenter of the universe that is Los Angeles. But that never changed the way he saw the world or himself. He was always 100 percent himself, for better or for worse. I think I’m like my dad. I freeze people out. I can be a little standoffish. But there are good things I’ve gotten from him as well. I’m not status conscious—I like people for unpredictable reasons. I always thought that was a nice thing about my dad. Most important, though, I’ve learned to be myself, unapologetically and always.
My Father the Bad Motherf*cker
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson is the all-time highest-grossing box-office star. Born in 1948 in Washington, DC, Jackson was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His early filmography includes Jungle Fever and Juice, but it was his role as Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that turned Jackson into a cultural touchstone. Since then he’s starred in many of Tarantino’s films as well as in the Star Wars and Avengers series. He has one daughter, Zoē, and lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, LaTanya Richardson.
Zoē (age four) on her way to school with Samuel, 1986
my father is a big nerd, in the best way possible. He is completely different from his cool-guy persona. He’s got a wormhole personality in that he burrows into whatever strange thing he’s interested in and gets really into it. After we moved to Los Angeles when I was ten, we would go to Golden Apple Comics on Melrose every week religiously. They even kept a pull box for my dad. (A pull box is something that only comic book nerds have—the store pulls the new comics on a customer’s list and keeps them behind the counter.) I used to be into all things Archie, but Dad’s pull box was full of weird and really violent comics that I wasn’t allowed to read. Dad and I didn’t start exchanging comic books until I got to college. I forced him to read The Sandman (the Neil Gaiman reboot). He forced me to read the neo-noir series 100 Bullets, the western Scalped, and WildStorm’s The Boys. When I was in college, whenever I went to the comic book store alone, I was sad. I wanted my dad to be there.
Before we moved to LA, I spent a lot of time with my father. Both my parents are actors—back then working primarily in theater—and at that time, my mom was the busier, better known of the two. My dad took me to school every single day: We would get on the subway in Harlem, ride it downtown to a crosstown bus, and then transfer to another bus until we got to the Upper West Side. We would also go to the Bronx Zoo together. My dad loves animals: reptiles, mammals, fish. He especially loves snakes. He was full of animal facts—he actually studied marine biology in college.
Though I was largely shielded from it at the time, my dad was struggling with addiction during much of my childhood. When I was eight, he entered rehab. He was gone for sixty days, which was a confusing time for me. I had no idea anything was wrong. Now, when I look back on that time, I don’t know to what to attribute some of my memories. I remember going to a bar on the Upper West Side with my dad. He’d give me a quarter and I’d go play “Tequila” by the Champs in the jukebox on repeat. (I was really into Pee-wee’s Playhouse.) But I never saw him drunk that I know of. I just thought he was a dude who slept a lot.
We moved to Los Angeles for my mom. She got a role in the short-lived Chuck Lorre series Frannie’s Turn. But soon my dad’s career really took off, and my mom stopped working as much to take care of me. It’s funny that my father is the better-known actor, because my mom was the one who pushed him to act in the first place. They met in a professor’s office at Morehouse. (My dad went to Morehouse; my mom went to Spelman. The teacher taught at both colleges.) Dad was looking for extra credit, and Mom was doing some makeup work. She said, “You need to be in my play. Do you act?” Dad said, “Actually, I don’t,” but my mom replied, “Well, you do now.” And that’s how it went, and how it has gone ever since. My mom turns the key and sends Dad out into the world. He comes back and seeks her opinion, and she’s happy to advise. They’ve been married for close to fifty years now. She still gives him notes on his performances. They can’t live without each other. They each send me articles about the other. I do think it was very hard for my mom to give up her career to raise me for as long as she did, though. She’s happy for my dad, of course, but it’s complicated. There’s a sadness there.
I was twelve years old when Pulp Fiction came out. After that, my dad became cool. Or, he thought he did. And though much of the world agrees, he’s still just a big nerd to me. He goes through phases. Now it’s watching Korean martial arts movies and Thai B movies. He reads four or five books about random topics at once. And now he DMs me all the time on Instagram and recommends obscure trap music and stuff. Once, he gave me a sweatshirt he got from working on Django Unchained. He said, “I signed it for you!” I was like, “Dad, thanks. Now I can’t wear it!” It’s up to my mom and me to pull him back down to earth. I mean, isn’t that what family’s for?
My Father the Beatle
John Lennon was a songwriter and musician, born in Liverpool, England, in 1940. Together with his friends Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and later Ringo Starr, he was a member of the Beatles, one of the most popular and influential bands in the world. He was assassinated in 1980 in New York City and is survived by his sons, Julian and Sean, and his second wife, Yoko Ono.
John and Julian (five years old) posing in front of John’s psychedelic Rolls-Royce, in Liverpool, UK, 1968
alot of my happy memories of my father are from the late 1960s at Kenwood, the old Tudor house we had in Surrey, England, when I was a little boy. The house had a front-room lounge with windows that faced west where I used to watch the sunset. That was the main hang. Without knowing it, I probably saw some of the greatest musicians in the world come and go through that room.
I remember sitting on the roof of that house with my dad making a balsa-wood airplane. There was a great view from up there. As a kid, I thought my dad was pretty happy—with the family, the family home, and his place in the world. Who could have predicted that everything was about to change?
The Beatles had just released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. At the time, my dad had his famous psychedelic Rolls-Royce Phantom V, which I adored because it had a record player in the back. We also had a Honda monkey bike, a mini motorcycle we used to ride around on. Ringo lived down the road, and my dad would take me to see him on the monkey bike. My dad had a great sense of humor. He loved Peter Sellers and had a comedic sensibility I naturally shared. You see it in some of his sketches and in his book A Spaniard in the Works.
At Kenwood, my father and I were close. So close, in fact, that though my first name is also John, I started to get called Julian or Jules since when my mum would shout, “John, your dinner’s ready!” both my dad and I would react. Then suddenly he literally disappeared off the face of the planet. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. He and Yoko Ono were deeply, and publicly, in love. And I felt like my mum and I had been cast aside. Not everyone forgot about us, though. Paul wrote “Hey Jules” after dropping in to check how my mum and I were doing. (Obviously, the title of the song changed.)
Maybe ten years passed during which my dad and I barely spoke. I was very angry about how he left the family. It was thanks to my mum that we started having conversations again. She was such a gentle soul, never vindictive in any way, shape, or form. My mum got brushed off, and she struggled with it for years, but she always wanted me to have a relationship with my dad.
I was scared the first time I went to visit him in the United States after my parents’ divorce. I was becoming more aware of the magnitude of this man. I was fixated on an episode that had occurred years before during a trip to Montauk, when he became very angry at me for laughing. I had an uncontrollable nervous giggle as a child, which upset him a great deal. My dad had berated me, telling me to shut up. So I was worried about that. Much to my relief, the visit was a success. There was a lot of laughter—but not from nervousness. My dad was charming and funny and warm. From that trip on, I remember us getting along better. We had some good times after that, less as father and son but more as friends, or maybe a combination of both.
In fact, I often return to another memory, one that reminds me of the time we made the balsa-wood plane at Kenwood. In 1979, the remains of Hurricane David were coming toward Long Island, and I was standing with my dad on the lawn at a rented house near Montauk. There were 100-kilometer winds sweeping through, and my half brother, Sean, was with us. We were just enjoying one another’s company, watching the storm approach, and I recall it was the first day we all spent together.
Even though I was playing guitar before I was in my teens, I hesitated to enter the music business because of who my dad was. I would send him the odd cassette of me playing live, or song ideas I had recorded on a little Sony Walkman he had given me as a gift. He warmly encouraged me to continue playing, but sadly, he never really got to see my career unfold, as he passed when I was seventeen. When I did finally become a professional musician a few years later, I felt like I understood him better. I experienced just a fraction of the mania that he did, but I got a sense of what it’s like when thousands of people are waiting outside your hotels, trying to rip off your clothes when you come or go. I can’t imagine going through that with a wife and kid at home.
I can certainly understand why my dad did a lot of what he did, particularly in terms of keeping his emotions bottled up inside, hidden especially from those he loved. The Lennon men seem to be always running off, singing and playing the guitar, looking for a way to express ourselves. I understand the frustration my dad had when it came to that, and I’m grateful that at least he found his way through his music. I just wish he could have done that a bit more with me, as a father, too.
I try to remember my dad as fondly as possible. I strive for forgiveness and understanding in that area of my life, for the difficult times he put my mum and me through. I loved her more than anything and can’t forget how poorly he treated her. But our relationship was getting better before he died. He was in a happier place. He wanted to reconnect, not just with me but with the rest of his family in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. He never got a chance to do so. Even now, almost forty years after my father died, and almost five years after my mum passed away, I try to hold my father’s memory dear. I imagine that’s what he would have wanted. That’s what my mum would have wanted. And that’s what I would like, too.
My Father the Captain
Peter Willcox, born in Vermont in 1953 and raised in Connecticut, is a sea captain best known for his work with Greenpeace. In more than thirty-five years with the environmental organization, he participated in some of its most notable campaigns: He was the captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed in New Zealand in 1985, and in 2013, he—along with twenty-nine others, together called the Arctic Thirty—was arrested by Russian authorities while sailing in the Pechora Sea; he was held for two months. He has two daughters, Natasha and Anita, from his first marriage and a stepson, Skylar Purdy, with his second wife, Maggy Aston.
i was born in spain, but when I was six, my parents separated, and my dad moved back to the United States. My sister and I would spend the summers with him. Then, when I was ten, we moved to the States to live with my dad full-time. I was very excited and curious about what that would be like.
Papa, as we call him, worked at Greenpeace, but beyond knowing that it was a really cool organization that did wonderful things for the environment and for our planet, I don’t think I fully understood what that meant. I realized that my father’s work came with risks, but also that he was extremely dedicated to it. I remember hearing my dad tell the story of the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship that was bombed by French intelligence and sank off the coast of New Zealand. Dad was on board and narrowly escaped drowning. (One photojournalist was killed.) But that hadn’t dissuaded my father from his mission.
Everyone at Greenpeace calls my dad Pete. At home, his friends call him Peter. Pete Willcox and Peter Willcox are two different people. At work, my father is in his element. He’s an amazing sailor and a great captain. He’s passionate about the environment and the work he does. He’s most comfortable when he’s aboard a ship.
He’s different as a dad. A lot of the qualities that make someone a stellar ship captain do not necessarily make them the best parent. On a ship, in order to remain calm and collected under immense pressure, the captain has to be emotionally removed. For my father, raising two daughters on his own was probably hard enough, but it was made doubly difficult by the fact that his way of dealing with his feelings was to keep them locked up. By the time my sister and I moved to the United States, we were entering that age at which, naturally, we had a lot of questions and a lot of struggles. Being a teenage girl is confusing. Papa was not particularly equipped to have those difficult conversations, not just factually but, more important, emotionally. There were no answers he could give, no easy solutions to our problems. He had to just listen and be present. It was new and challenging for him.
When we first arrived, Papa was really trying to be with us full-time. He was teaching sailing classes and coaching my softball and soccer teams. But by the time I got to high school and my sister, Anita, was starting college, he was shouldering a much greater financial burden and needed a job that offered more hours and would bring in a steady income. That’s when he rejoined Greenpeace. There were months-long stretches when he would be gone and I would stay with my aunt and uncle. I remember a lot of people looking down on him for that. A big part of me was upset about it, too. He was not the best at communicating when he was on the ship, so I would sometimes go a little too long without hearing from him. But looking back on it now, I understand his decision to leave.
I was in my first semester of college, in 2013, when my dad was detained by the Russian government. I coped by burying myself in my studies as much as I could. I also kept telling myself: It’s Greenpeace! They get arrested all the time! It’s no big deal! That’s what kept me afloat. But in October, when the Russian government charged my dad and the rest of the Arctic Thirty with piracy, I realized that things were much more serious. It occurred to me that I might never see my dad again. When I learned that the Russian authorities were talking about a sentence of many, many years, I thought, He’s not going to see me graduate from college. He’s not going to see me get married. He’s not going to see any of this. All of that hit me at once. It was incredibly hard.
“The most famous fathers of modern times and how they interacted with their families in their private lives.”
“Sometimes emotionally raw, funny, sometimes a bit on the competitive side, and sometimes an awful lot sad. . . . A quick, enjoyable read.”
“An intriguing collection of essays written by the children of actors, authors, inventors, sports heroes and scientists, the book gives readers the lowdown on what it’s like to be raised by a legend. Frequently funny and consistently intimate, the essays reveal surprising truths about their subjects. . . . Rare family photos give the book extra appeal. Stein delivers a great read for dads everywhere with this touching tribute to family men.”
“A compelling read for anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes take on the parental lives of men in the spotlight.”
“Stein, editor-at-large for the website Fatherly, compiles 40 stories by sons and daughters about their well-known fathers. Giving a glimpse of the men outside the public eye, these compositions present their subjects in a whole new light—ultracool actor Samuel L. Jackson is a “nerd” (“he’s got a wormhole personality” who “burrows into whatever strange things he’s interested in”), and Superman actor Christopher Reeve didn’t become a super dad until he was paralyzed. According to Brandon Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner became a more attentive dad after her gender transition. Not all these dads were famous for the right reasons—Steve Hodel reflects on his father George, who was a prime suspect, though he was never charged, in the 1947 Black Dahlia murder—and though their children are haunted by their deeds, they also find the humanity in these men who acted in inhumane ways (Hodel recalls the joy of clamming—albeit illegally—with his father in 1949 L.A.). In a moving essay not involving a famous father, Jim Sullivan writes of spending years trying to learn the identity of his biological father, who turned out to be a Catholic priest named Thomas S. Sullivan. Those searching for a moving Father’s Day gift need look no further.”
- On Sale
- Mar 31, 2020
- Page Count
- 192 pages