If you were a casting director, and there was a part in the script for a father who might have a crusty exterior but also had a warm heart, someone who could be believably cranky about not having any muffins for breakfast but also believably paternal in providing some advice but more support, your first choice would be Paul Dooley.
While he has appeared in dozens of films and played everything from an alien abductee (“Waiting for Guffman”) to a judge (“Happy, Texas”) to a hamburger-loving comic strip character (“Popeye”), he is best remembered as father to a generation of young characters played by performers including Molly Ringwald (“Sixteen Candles”), Dennis Christopher (“Breaking Away”), and Julia Roberts (“The Runaway Bride”). His new memoir is called Movie Dad: Finding Myself and My Family, On Screen and Off (get a copy here). It is filled with anecdotes about his experiences in every possible genre of film as well as lesser-known activities (he was the head writer for “The Electric Company” and came up with the characters Easy Reader and Fargo North Decoder!), and poignant stories about growing up as Paul Brown, the son of a taciturn factory worker in West Virginia and the years of missing his children when his ex-wife kept them away from him.
Being home during the pandemic inspired you to look back on your life and write this memoir. Are you the kind of person who keeps a lot of memorabilia around? Did you have scrapbooks to help you remember all these details?
My wife is laughing because you call it “memorabilia.” We call it junk. I have a garage full of stuff. I'm a pack rat. Not the Rat Pack. I'm a pack rat. The kind of rat that brings things back to his nest. Just two more boxes and I'm a hoarder.
I didn't really have to check all those boxes, though. Some of them are still out there. I just opened one today that was on a top shelf in the garage of a high section of shelves. A huge box. “What the hell is in this?” And I opened it up and it's hats -- derbies, and all kinds of theatrical hats. Hats with earmuffs and different character hats. I hadn't seen them for 25 years. But there is one hat on a hat tree in our house. It is the hat I wore playing Wimpy, which I stole from the set. It'll be a collector's item someday for hamburger lovers.
I have an expert memory of my life, but I also have programs and photographs and all kinds of things. Reviews. But generally, I have a good memory because most of the stuff in the book is not hard for me to remember. It is my whole life.
I’m always fascinated by dialects and accents and you talk about your facility with them in the book.
I actually studied dialects and they had a course in college. You could study dialects. The teacher was a former New York actor who specialized in dialects and characters on radio. But then radio went away. There are no more radio dramas after a while. So he started teaching, and he told me that every dialect is a tune pattern. If you'll think of the way people make fun of the Swedish or one of those low-country things. Is that, ta, da, ta, da ta, da, ta, da, ta, da. And the Russians are all in the same level. They all have tune patterns and rhythms. And so, dialect is never about the consonant practically. It's almost always about vowels, whether you’re doing a Southern accent or Boston accent or Texas. If you get the vowels right then you have the dialect.
I'm not hearing any West Virginia in your current accent. Do you think that you lost your original accent?
Oh, no. It's around here somewhere. I believe it's in one of the boxes in the garage out there. [Laughs] West Virginia dialect is not like any other state I know. The word bush becomes buush. Dish becomes deesh. Tires are tars and fires are far.
Really funny kind of way of talking. Well, what happened was I went to West Virginia University and most of the students were from the state university. So, we all studied speech and our teachers were people who had graduated from the same school and came back. So, they were teaching you with the West Virginia accent. And we were learning how to do Shakespeare with whatever accent we had. I had to wait till I got to New York to understand what my accent was. And within a few months without trying, I probably, unconsciously based it on radio announcers, television announcers, and movie actors, and I picked it up quickly because I have a good ear.
I didn't get to use it in my acting much because I got typed as a dad and I had to be either cranky or understanding. I use a lot of dialects in improvisation. That's where I learned a lot of that stuff. Another thing I developed in Second City was fake Shakespeare. I used to be very successful doing fake Shakespeare. I got the rhythm of iambic pentameter in my head, and I would be doing things like, “Let me not know that I should at this time pleased upon my good sign that I would find you there.” It had real words and the right rhythm but the words were upside down, sideways.
You write that you have played at least 25 dads, sometimes grumpy, sometimes understanding. And once in a while, both.
Yes, that's true. As a character actor you don't usually have an arc. You don't start one place and go someplace else and then change. And that's what a real good part is, where you have an arc. Only twice in my life that I have an arc, which is one more than Noah. [Laughs]
One was in “Breaking Away.” He seems to be pretty cranky and making fun of his kid wanting to be an Italian and then as soon as his kids starts winning the race, he has a change of heart and goes over there. And now suddenly he's proud of him. So, that was the chance to do both, to have that little curve in it. Also, we had a nice scene walking in the campus at night.
When you said, “You’re not a cutter…”
“…I'm a cutter.” Yes. Because what's interesting is, he’s not ashamed of being a cutter, which is the nickname the college kids gave the townies. So that is meant to be an insult. And I said “You're not a cutter. I'm a cutter.” So, a cutter to my character is the guy who carves stone, a stonemason. So, it has two meanings. I love that line.
What makes you such a good movie dad?
It's a two-word answer: Good acting. In other words, I don't have to bring much to the plate. I have kids all over the place. It's just instinctual. It's really not that I really am such an amazing actor that I could identify with every new kid that I'm being the father of. It's that I have an innate quality, which is nothing that I know about, just something comes out of me that has a fatherly quality, and that father can be a little cranky or he can turn out to be a nice guy. But it's almost not something I have to work on it's just something that comes through instincts.
You write very movingly in the book about filming a tender scene with Dennis Christopher in “Breaking Away” when you were separated from your children.
That almost forced me ... it led me into being a method actor when I was hugging Denis Christopher. And he was about to cry. I always played my father in these movies. That was who I was working with. So, if I'm the father, who is this kid I'm hugging? It's me. So, I had the experience of being both Denis and myself because I'm the father hugging the son. And the son is me, too. I never had a father who hugged me so I had to pretend I knew how it worked.
You write a lot about your love of wordplay, but one of the actors you love most is the silent star Buster Keaton. Of course, we all love Buster but what makes him so special to you?
Everyone always compares to him Chaplin, and Chaplin in the long run was more famous than Keaton was at the time. But I said in the book, “If Chaplin was king, then certainly Buster was the prince. I felt Chaplin was someone I could only admire from afar because he seemed so much smarter than me, so much smarter than the audience. He seemed to always be showing off. Now, he's showing off brilliantly, of course. But it was almost like he was on a proscenium stage instead of in a movie. He often just played to the camera. But Buster always looked like he was in a real situation. He was a real person, not a comedian. And I was in awe of him in the same way. In fact, I felt that it was someone I could sit down with and have a beer and talk to. He seemed accessible. He seemed humble. He seemed vulnerable. And he was, as you learn from the Dana Stevens book, Camera Man, he's considered a much more innovative filmmaker than Chaplin was. Chaplin didn't create very many kinds of things that led to other things. He made some great movies, of course, but Buster walked down the aisle and “Sherlock Junior” walked onto the screen. That's very surrealistic. And he did other things like that.
In the book, I explain that I never saw my father smile. The same with Buster. I never saw my father laugh. So, somehow I must have made Buster into my role model because I connected him to my father. I admired him for his talent, and I got something from him, which was a guy who didn't speak much, didn't show emotion, just like my father, but was highly entertaining at the same time.
And then I met him and did a commercial with him. I was over the moon just to meet him and see him for a couple of days. It's like meeting your gods, your idols.
I got a big kick out of one thing that you said in the book about how you were challenged to come up with commercials you’ve appeared in for products with every letter from A to Z. And you were able to do it!
I said it in a flip way but then I started looking in my booking, my little weekly or a day-at-a-glance book. I did over 640 commercials and at least one product for every letter.
I want to ask you something. Your site is RogerEbert.com?
I did a tour when “Breaking Away” was about to come out. I went to all the major cities and Daniel Stern was with me and some of the other actors at different times. And I was interviewed by Roger Ebert and also by Gene Siskel, differently, separately. And they both had raved about the movie and then they met with me. The best quotes I ever got in my life are from Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Roger Ebert said, “to watch Paul Dooley in this part is to know he will win an Oscar.” I'll always love the names Siskel and Ebert.