It’s Father’s Day once again, which means you’re seeing ads for all the types of gifts that a dad might like: wacky golf balls; knives that open up to reveal other knives; neckties covered in pictures of hot dogs and footballs. Maybe you know a dad that loves all of that. Maybe your dad loves all that. But fathers, and father-figures, come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes have interests other than bourbon and barbecues.
The movies don’t always serve the cause of dad-diversity, presenting many of the same tired stereotypes over and over and over again. But there are still some truly impressive representations out there: moving, funny, caring, sometimes a little messed up, but doing their best with what they’ve got to work with. That’s all you can ask for from any parent.
Maybe you’re looking for something to do with dad this weekend, or maybe you’re just looking to spend some time with the fantasy dad you never had. Maybe both. Either way: pour some bourbon, put bacon on something that doesn’t usually involve bacon, and check out some of these iconic dads from movie history.
Furious Styles in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
In one of the most iconic dad performances in film history, Laurence Fishburne guides his son Tre through life and adolescence in South Central L.A. during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in director John Singleton’s directorial debut. Furious isn’t always the cuddliest father figure (not even a little), but his tough love and hard-earned wisdom help to keep his son from the worst consequences of drug, gang, and police violence, even as his less fortunate friends fall victim. Singleton based the movie on his own life, and based Furious on his own father, which, along with Fishburne’s performance, helps to explain why this particular dad resonates, even 30 years later.
Jack Spier in Love, Simon (2018)
Josh Duhamel’s Jack is already a pretty good dad, though he goes through most of Love, Simon entirely clueless about the fact that his son is gay, making jokes that he thinks are harmless and teasing Simon about hot girls and girlfriends. When Simon gets outed to the entire school all at once, Jack’s initially not sure how to respond — but ultimately gets it just right (he even promises to sign up for Grindr, not quite getting the concept). So many coming out stories turn to heartbreak, but a good dad helps give this one a happy ending.
Bryan Mills in Taken (2008)
He’s a man with a very particular set of skills. Skills which, OK, aren’t really related to parenting in any meaningful way. Unless you find yourself kidnapped by an Albanian human trafficking ring, in which case those skills (Green Beret and CIA stuff, mostly) are pretty much exactly what you want from your dad. Over the course of the three-film Taken series, Bryan doesn’t really ever become a great dad, but he does do absolutely anything in his power to thwart multiple kidnappings involving his sometimes-estranged family, which should be worth at least a nice Father’s Day card.
George Kirk in Star Trek (2009)
Captain Kirk’s dad makes the list without having spent a single moment with his kid — at least in the alternate timeline of the J. J. Abrams-produced Star Trek movies. When a Romulan vessel from the future threatens the Federation starship Kelvin, first officer George Kirk does the only thing he can: he personally smashes the Kelvin into the invading ship in order to buy time for his crew to flee in escape shuttles (the autopilot tragically, but unsurprisingly, disabled). Among that crew is his wife, Winona, now prematurely in labour. Not only does dad (played by none other than Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) sacrifice his life for his newborn son, but he passes on some truly impressive genes to a kid who ultimately grows into Chris Pine.
John Quincy Archibald in John Q (2002)
John and Denise Archibald (Denzel Washington and Kimberley Elise) find themselves in a horrific situation, but not an impossible one: despite having insurance, the couple learns they don’t have the right coverage to pay for the heart transplant needed to save the life of their son. Without, essentially, a $US75,000 ($96,195) co-pay, the hospital won’t put Mike on a donor list. In desperation, Washington’s character takes a cardiologist and several hospital staff hostage in exchange for treatment. It’s all rather heavy-handed, and his plan isn’t a particularly good one, but Washington is convincing, as always, as a dad who will do anything to save his son.
Hal Fields in Beginners (2010)
Better late than never. That’s the message of Beginners, in which Hal, played by Christopher Plummer (beginning his own late-career resurgence) comes out to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor). As Hal begins to live his life more openly and finds love with a younger man, he also develops a more honest relationship with Oliver. As a result, the two become closer than ever before, and their relationship inspires Oliver to pursue a new romance — and to generally live life on his own terms. It’s a movie about how, sometimes, being true to yourself is the best way to be a good parent.
Jim’s Dad in American Pie (1999)
Across four films (and four spin-off movies), Jim’s unnamed dad (Eugene Levy) has been the charming, clueless heart of the American Pie series. We expect the milquetoast Levy to shy away from any discussions of sex, but the ultra-helpful dad is always ready to dive right in to an uncomfortable degree: buying (and trying to explain) porn for a son who already gets the idea; not getting too worked about the disposition of the titular pie; etc. The joke, initially, is that a supportive, open dad can make for some incredibly uncomfortable moments. Over time, though, it’s clear that Jim’s dad is a just pretty solid parent, and wonderfully sex-positive, even when things are a little awkward.
Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Based on a true story and starring Will Smith alongside his son Jaden, this movie follows the ups and harrowing downs of Chris Gardner’s life as he struggles to keep afloat in Reagan-era San Francisco. Bad luck and bad decisions impact the family’s fortunes, but many of their problems are broadly recognisable: as Chris gets further behind in the bills, it becomes increasingly impossible to catch up. Though the two experience homelessness before the end, Chris never sacrifices his dignity, nor his optimism for his family’s future.
Sam, Harry, and Bill in Mamma Mia! (2008)
At the beginning of Mamma Mia!, Amanda Seyfried’s character sets out to invite her “real” father to her wedding — the only problem being, she’s not sure who that is. She finally narrows the list down to three candidates (Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, and Colin Firth), all men with whom her mother (Meryl Streep) had spent a magical summer many years ago (and who, incidentally, have wildly varying singing skills). At first, they’re all reluctant to claim responsibility but, by the end, nobody cares who is who: they’re all her real dads, by choice if not biology, and their found family is way more important than any blood test.
Mike and Sully in Monsters, Inc. (2001)
The joke of Monsters, Inc. is that the monsters, Mike and Sully (John Goodman and Billy Crystal), are at least as afraid of the little kids as the kids are of them — a feeling to which new dads can probably relate. When Boo (Mary Gibbs) sneaks through her closet door into the scare factory, the pair of surrogate dads move from fear of the girl to fear for her, and learn that laughter is more powerful than anything scary.
Mac MacGuff in Juno (2007)
Look, there’s no way that J.K. Simmons is going to play a cute, cuddly dad. But, when Eliot Page’s oddball Juno becomes pregnant at 16, gruff Mac MacGuff is exactly who she needs. Without judging, condemning, or freaking out, he supports her at every quirky turn in her effort to find adoptive parents for the baby — and does so with a snarky sense of humour and a (mildly) foul mouth that never turns mean. By the end, he assures his kid that, to the right person, the sun will always shine out Juno’s a**. Aw, dad.
Jonathan Kent and Jor-El in Superman (1978)
Neither dad in 1978’s Superman gets a ton of screen time, but Jonathan (Glenn Ford) raises Clark and, with Martha, helps instill in him the values that he’ll need in order to use his incredible powers for the benefit of others. Marlon Brando’s Jor-El gets credit as well, not only for creating and building the oddly tiny rocket that sent his son to Earth but also for showing up to offer advice from beyond the grave. Kal-El was the sole survivor* of that doomed planet, and that’s almost entirely thanks to his dad, who sent along an interactive virtual dad for Kal to talk to when the young Superman needed a morale boost, or just a Kryptonian history lesson. I’m saying it took two dads (and a couple of great mums, as well) working together from across the universe to shape Clark.
(Between salary and profit points, Marlon Brando earned around $US20 ($26) million in 1978 dollars for fewer than 20 minutes onscreen, making him not just one of the best, but also one of the best-paid dads on the list.)
*Or one of dozens, including at least one dog, depending on which version of the story we’re talking about.
Lt. Donald Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Look, he’s not a perfect dad.
Strike one: Don (the late, great John Saxon) participated in the extrajudicial murder of an accused child killer (not a good look for a cop) that unleashed Freddy Krueger on the town of Springwood; Freddy is now obsessed with taking his revenge on the town’s teenagers; oops. Strike two: When his smart, convincing daughter Nancy tried to call attention to that fact, he initially dismisses her concerns (and uses her to bait the killer, who he suspects is human). Nevertheless, all of his (very significant!) mistakes were misguided attempts to protect his family. He comes around by the end, giving Nancy a hand in defeating Freddy the first time around, and giving his life for her a couple of movies later. And he helped raise the most resourceful of all slasher movie protagonists, so he clearly did something right.
Will Stacks in Annie (2014)
It’s a hard knock life for Quvenzhané Wallis’ Annie, no doubt, but things start looking up when she has a chance encounter with Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a mobile phone mogul running for mayor of New York (also an update of the “Daddy Warbucks” character from earlier Annie adaptations). Will’s hard-driving campaign manager sees Annie as nothing more than a publicity stunt to help his boss win the election. She’s not much more than that to Will, at first, but, of course, melts his hard heart before the last musical number. A new family and an adoption are in the works while everyone sings “Tomorrow.”
Gomez Addams in The Addams Family (1991)
In cinema history, I’m not sure that there’s any more healthy relationship than the one between Raul Julia’s Gomez and Anjelica Huston’s Morticia. It may be within a wacky, sometimes slapstick goth comedy, but their marriage is a true partnership between two people who remain deeply in love and genuinely horny for each other, even after many years of marriage and a couple of kids. These two have heat. Everything else springs from that. Gomez is a great dad: doting, supportive, and playful. Living up to the Addams creed, he’ll also gladly (very gladly) feast on any who would subdue them — because protecting one’s family is almost as important as having fun.
Antonio Ricci in Bicycle Thieves (1948)
A stolen bike is the catalyst for father-son bonding in the beautifully photographed Italian classic Bicycle Thieves. With work in short supply, Lamberto Maggiorani’s Antonio is able to get a bicycle after his wife, Maria, pawns some of the family’s prized possessions. Times being what they are in post-WWII Italy, the bike is stolen on Antonio’s first day of work, forcing Antonio and his son Bruno to scour the city searching for the crucial possession. From that deceptively simple plot comes a thoughtful, moving, honest story of fathers and sons in troubled times.
Frank Fisher in Hearts Beat Loud (2018)
Nick Offerman plays gruff widower Frank, a vinyl enthusiast and owner of a failing record store who finds himself in something like a midlife crisis. His daughter Sam is headed off to medical school in the fall, but shares her dad’s love of music — even if their tastes don’t entirely line up. She agrees to her dad’s request that they record a song together… and the resulting single becomes a streaming hit. It sounds cutesy, but it’s got a smart script and a stellar cast, as well as a sharply drawn portrait of a father and daughter who have, maybe, a bit more in common than they think.
Rick Mitchell in The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
Danny McBride voices technophobic Rick Mitchell, who teams up with his daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) to save the world in this smartass-yet-heartwarming animated movie. Aspiring filmmaker Katie is constantly at odds with her dad, whose nature and tool obsessions leave him out of the loop when it comes to her dream of being a filmmaker. Instead of letting Katie take a flight to college, Ricks opts for a road trip to help the whole family bond, which doesn’t work out too well until a tech company’s AI goes rogue and threatens the entire world; the family comes back together to fight the machines, with father and daughter learning to understand each other along the way.
Seo Seok-woo in Train to Busan (2016)
As we’ve seen, it often takes a crisis to bring a family together. How about a zombie apocalypse? On a train? The 2016 South Korean production sees just that scenario play out: Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workaholic divorced dad who comes to feel that he’s running out of time to be the father he ought to be for his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). He has no idea how little time he has, as the train trip he plans for them as bonding time becomes something much more desperate when a zombie-infected woman hops aboard just before departure. What follows is one of the best action-horror movies of the past decade, but also a surprisingly moving story about a father and daughter reconnecting at the end of the world.
Willie Jones in Friday (1995)
John Witherspoon’s Willie Jones is the beating heart of the Friday series — a dorky, often embarrassing dad to Ice Cube’s character who, like many of the best dads, is more than capable of absolutely wrecking a bathroom. Throughout the stoner/buddy trilogy, Witherspoon brings the laughs, but it’s the unexpected moments of heart that solidify his spot as one of the very best movie dads. An emotional speech on gun violence in the first movie somehow fits in perfectly with all the comedy, and that’s a tribute to Witherspoon’s talents. Many of the best father figures can do both: goofy when it’s called for, but serious when it’s needed.
Tatsuo Kusakabe in My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Archaeology professor Tatsuo doesn’t spend a ton of time with Mei and Satsuki over the course of My Neighbour Totoro, which is just as well given that it allows room for his daughters to have their own adventures. But he does support the girls at every turn — giving full reign to their imaginations, but also accepting Mei fully at her word when she describes Totoro. With their mother ill and in the hospital, Tatsuo knows exactly when to nurture his girls, and when to let them explore freely.
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Lawyer and widowed father Atticus Finch watches over Scout and her brother Jem in the fictional southern town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930s. In that context, he’s almost all you could ask for in a father: he’s a benevolent but firm presence who doesn’t take pains to shield his children from the harsh realities of poverty and racism that surround their middle-class lives. Though we’ve (hopefully) begun to move beyond the type of “white saviour” narratives that Atticus so ably represents, there’s little question that, as a father figure, he’s an iconic presence.
Rahul Khanna in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
As the single dad in one of Bollywood’s most beloved rom-coms, Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul Khanna has had little on his mind but taking care of his daughter, Anjali, for the eight years since her mother died. Anjali’s mum left behind letters for her daughter to read on each of her subsequent birthdays and, when she comes to the final one, learns that her dad was very nearly in a relationship with a different woman when he was in college. Naturally, Anjali decides that her dad needs a girlfriend and that she’s going to hook him up. The father-daughter relationship is genuinely charming.
Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Chaim Topol plays Tevye, the poor milkman in the shtetl of Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century, a critical time and one of dramatic change. As the Russians are gradually expelling Jews from their villages, Tevye is forced to cope with both that existential threat to his family’s existence while trying to preserve some sense of tradition and normalcy in the lives of a family that includes three daughters approaching ages at which they might be matched for marriage. Where Tevye doesn’t respond as well as he might to changes (all but disowning one daughter for marrying outside the faith), he genuinely believes that all of his actions are to benefit his children and prevent them from moving too fast into an uncertain future.
Woody Carmichael in Crooklyn (1994)
There’s plenty of trouble for the Carmichael family in Spike Lee’s semi-autobiographical film: set in colourful Bed-Stuy in the early 70s, there are fights with the neighbours and equally vicious fights within the family over money (and, specifically, Woody’s inability to save any). When the family matriarch dies, though, Woody and his daughter Troy (Zelda Harris) form an unspoken agreement to team up and keep what remains of their family together. Not every parent is an island, and it’s the loving partnership between father and daughter that holds things together for the Carmichaels.