Please, won’t you be my father?
My dad left our family when I was very young. I saw him maybe three times between age four and age eighteen. He was a kind, sensitive, brilliant man, and we had a relationship when I was an adult — but he wasn’t ever someone I could count on for various fatherly roles or functions. To cope with the lack, for as long as I can remember, I’ve adopted various actors in movie or TV roles as imaginary parental stand-ins. As Father’s Day approaches, I’m sharing my top ten dad crushes, ranked.
10) Bill Nighy
Nighy wins as the most recent addition to my crush list with his performance as Mr. Woodhouse in 2020’s Emma. Sure, he’s a cranky hypochondriac, but he loves both his daughters unconditionally, never once commenting on their obvious shortcomings. Also, he seems to have an unlimited budget for Emma’s fabulous wardrobe. That kind of loyalty is the stuff of dreams.
9) Nicolas Cage
Nic makes the cut partly for his role as Jack Campbell in The Family Man, a vastly under-appreciated riff on A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. (Go watch it. It’s pure comfort food.) But he first captured my dad-seeking heart in Raising Arizona, in which H.I. McDunnough goes to hilarious and herculean lengths to take care of his “adopted” baby. The last scene, with H.I., his wife Edwina, and their extended family gathered around a festive table in their double wide, underscored by Cage’s earnest voiceover, is cinematic perfection.
8) Steve Carell
In Dan in Real Life and Crazy, Stupid, Love., Steve Carell plays deeply flawed dads who nonetheless do the right thing (eventually). In both movies, Carell goes from hilarious to pathetic to tender in the blink of an eye. For me, devotion, a great cover of “Let My Love Open the Door,” and simply showing up cover a multitude of sins.
7) Jude Law
As a rule, my dad crushes are on men who are older than I am. Occasionally they’re not old enough to be my actual father, but I can at least pretend that Cage and Carell, for example, are my older brothers. Jude Law became the exception to the rule as the handsome, winsome widower Graham in The Holiday. (The supreme silliness of his Mr. Napkinhead scene made me swoon.) His place on my list was cemented with his small but memorable role as Hugo’s father in Hugo.
6) Bernie Mac
In The Bernie Mac Show, my hero has fatherhood thrust upon him when he takes in his nephew and two nieces. Bernie Mac’s acerbic, fourth-wall-breaking wit hides a tender heart, and his desire to do what’s right always wins out over his selfish impulses. Pure gold.
5) Christopher Plummer
Yes, The Sound of Music’s Captain Von Trapp is off-puttingly gruff with his kids at first, but only because of deep grief over the loss of his first wife. He has it all — integrity, tenderness, and courage. Even though he can’t really sing, his performance of “Edelweiss” melts my heart every single time. Plummer gets bonus points for his role in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, because who doesn’t want a maniacal, Shakespeare-spouting general as their father? (Well, maybe a lot of people — but I’m all in.)
4) Steve Martin
Two roles (Tom Baker and George Banks) in four movies (Cheaper by the Dozen and Father of the Bride and their sequels) stand out here. But in this case, my crush centers on Steve Martin the real man. He’s funny, no doubt — but he’s also a talented writer and a gifted, hard-working banjo player. Call him Renaissance Dad, because he can do it all.
3) Jimmy Stewart
These last three fathers are obvious choices, but there’s no getting around the fact that they’re all amazing. As with many of my dad crushes, I love It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey exactly because he’s not perfect. In fact, when my husband or I undergo a particularly tough parenting challenge, we’ll often label it a “George Bailey moment” after the scene in which Stewart complains to Donna Reed’s ever-saintly Mary, “Why’d we have to go and have all of these kids?” But you never question that George loves his family; Zuzu’s petals are all the proof you need.
2) Gregory Peck
I’m sure Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is on everyone’s top dad list — with good reason. He loves Jim and Scout as fiercely as he defends his doomed client Tom Robinson. My favorite Atticus moment is actually from the book, though — oh, to be young Scout, curled up on her father’s lap and learning to read as he points out words in his daily newspaper. Heaven.
1) Mr. Rogers
Fred Rogers is my O.G., all-time reigning dad crush by a mile. I wasn’t old enough to remember when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on PBS in 1968, but I was definitely watching regularly a year and a half later. With my dad gone when I was around four, I consciously decided Mr. Rogers would have to do. One of my earliest memories is happily answering his kind, searching questions out loud, with zero doubt that he was speaking and listening only to me.
I treasured the twinkle in his eye, and I lived for the frequent times he broke into song or played the piano so beautifully. We didn’t always have a TV when I was a kid, but when we did, I tuned in faithfully, long past the age when most people had graduated from such “babyish” entertainment.
Truth time: I have yet to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, for the simple reason that I love Fred Rogers so deeply that the film trailers alone cause me to weep uncontrollably. I’ll see them both when the time is right — and when I’m alone with a large amount of chocolate and a fresh box of tissues.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve seen Mr. Rogers quoted frequently — most often his encouragement to “look for the helpers.” In these troubled times and always, Fred Rogers is the dad we all need — wise, empathetic, engaged, trustworthy, present. Won’t you be my father?