‘Sixteen Candles’ father Paul Dooley’s memoir review

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In his entertaining memoir, Movie Dad: Finding Myself and My Family, On Screen and Off, Paul Dooley defines a character actor as “an actor who specializes in playing unusual people, playing supporting roles rather than leading roles.” . . never the star.”

One encounter he recalls with a New York City cab driver is typical of someone in his line of work. The cab driver tells him, “I know you.” When Dooley replies, “Oh? Who am I?” the man replies, “Well, I don’t know your name, but you have a familiar face.”

You most likely also know Dooley, no doubt from his parental roles alongside Molly Ringwald on Sixteen Candles, Dennis Christopher on Breaking Away, Julia Roberts on Runaway Bride, Helen Hunt on TV’s Mad About You and Cheryl Hines on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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It’s a testament to Dooley’s skill that he manages to bring a character that would be a stock character in less good hands with comedic grace notes (the car salesman who has a stroke when asked for a refund in Breaking Away ‘) and emotional shades (his moving heart to heart with Ringwald in Sixteen Candles after realizing he forgot her milestone birthday).

But Dooley, 94, has more to offer than being a film dad who doesn’t always know best.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, he was an unconventional acting path. He was 49 when he landed his first starring role as, yes, father of the bride in Robert Altman’s The Wedding. This after 25 years as a New York actor.

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The role that caught his attention on television networks in the 1960s was not his month-long stint as Art Carney’s stand-in on Broadway opposite Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple,” but his inspired role in a popular cigarette commercial, which was being produced along the way an Oscar ceremony was broadcast.

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“Movie Dad” is airy and talkative. Adapted from Dooley’s well-received one-man show of the same title, it’s audience-tested, with career-spanning anecdotes that are funny and at times raunchy (confronting Walter Matthau, Oscar for his Felix, about his annoying habit of breaking the fourth Wand to milk Neil Simon’s already classic one-liners).

Some of Dooley’s credits are surprising. It turns out he helped create the award-winning children’s educational series The Electric Company. He also provides insights into the working methods of Robert Altman (with whom he made five films) and Christopher Guest (three) as shareholders in their public companies.

Movie Dad has many stories about generation-defining classics. Dooley shares that he initially turned down his role as a father in “Sixteen Candles,” which would go on to become one of his iconic roles, but changed his mind after director-writer John Hughes wrote the scene with Ringwald in which she tells him of her reluctance to high school crush. “That’s why they call them crushes,” he assures her. “If they were simple, they would call them something else.”

As originally written, he reveals, the scene ended on an awkward note when he slapped his daughter’s bottom and asked her, “Where the hell are your panties?” He improvised a substitute line that Hughes used in the film: “When you meet your Mr. Right, make sure he knows you wear pants in the family.”

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But just as fascinating are the personal revelations. The emotional core of “Movie Dad” is Dooley’s own devastated parenting. In addition to having an emotionally distant dad, the beloved screen dad has been divorced twice. (He has been married since 1984 to his third wife, Winnie Holzman, who later wrote the series My So-Called Life and the Tony Award-winning libretto to the Broadway musical Wicked.) His second wife disappeared with their children afterward her divorce.

Her absence haunts him throughout his career. He writes about the poignant scene in Breaking Away in which he has to comfort his cyclist son after the Italian racers he adores sabotage his race. “I hugged a little boy who could be… my missing son,” he writes. “I remember thinking at the time… I wish my really missing son could see this scene.”

Spoiler alert: There’s a happy ending to this off-screen drama.

As a character actor, Dooley enjoys the kind of scene-stealing roles denied to movie stars whose names are above the title. He has had indelible roles as Wimpy in Popeye, a small-town man who claims he was abducted and investigated by aliens in Waiting for Guffman, and the voice of Sarge in Pixar’s Cars trilogy. He writes that Dustin Hoffman called him personally to cast him as Willy Loman’s neighbor in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman (Dooley was unavailable).

But it’s the trait of a film dad that his work has resonated the most for generations. “Hundreds of young women,” he writes, “have written to me or stopped me in the street and said, ‘I wish you were my father.'”

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Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com, and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.

Finding myself and my family, on and off screen

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