Paul Dooley became ‘Movie Dad’ despite his own children disappearing for a decade – Orange County Register

Paul Dooley was a character actor, advertising executive, Broadway actor, and stand-up comedian when writer-director John Hughes cast him as Molly Ringwald’s father in 1984’s Sixteen Candles.

Thereafter? He was a dad, says Dooley, 94, while recently discussing his new memoir Movie Dad. “I was typed as a father,” he says of his home in Los Angeles. “That’s why the many things are a father.”

He had been a film dad before. Director Robert Altman, a frequent collaborator, cast him as Mia Farrow’s father in 1978’s The Wedding. A year later, he was a father again in the acclaimed coming-of-age movie, Breaking Away. Curiously, Dennis Christopher played his son in both films.

And after that he would also be a film father. Dooley played Julia Roberts’ father in 1999’s Runaway Bride, and walked her down the aisle three times — “Once on a horse,” he notes. Years later, he had a recurring role on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm as Cheryl Hines’ father, making him Larry David’s father-in-law.

But the irony of all those fatherly roles, and all the other on-screen fathers he played, was that Dooley’s own children disappeared from screens for nearly a decade, a trauma he alludes to in the book’s subtitle, “Finding Myself and My Family on screen and off.”

Many of his roles are well known, although the stories behind them are fresh and entertaining in his memoir. But this real-life family drama surrounding his role as a father is something Dooley says he almost never shared.

“I don’t think anyone will know about it until they read the book,” says Dooley. “Some of my friends know. But even with many of my best friends, I haven’t talked about it.

“You couldn’t believe this was happening. And yet it happened.”

A boy grows up

For an actor so often typified as a father, Dooley’s own father wasn’t much of a role model.

“Writing about my father didn’t put me in a bad mood,” he says of his childhood and adolescence growing up in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a factory town on a bend in the Ohio River. “I had long understood that he was the kind of man he was.

“He couldn’t share,” says Dooley. “I really think my father was afraid of people. He had no friends. And his father left the family, so he had to take care of all that.”

And as a child in the 1930s, it wasn’t all that unusual for his friends’ fathers, he says.

“The weird thing is that I bonded with him so much that I wanted to be like him,” says Dooley. “If he wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t smiling. If he wasn’t laughing, I wasn’t laughing.

“I became that kind of character to portray these guys on screen who were kind of withdrawn, stoic, kind of callous people. Moody guys sometimes.”

At 12 he discovered radio comedy starring the likes of Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny and became obsessed with the art of wit. A few years later, a school friend introduced him to the Buster Keaton films, and Dooley saw a vision of his future.

“I kind of knew I wanted to do what he was doing,” he writes in the book. “I wanted to try to be a comedian.”

That dream went on hold when Dooley served in the Navy just after World War II. But upon his release after a friend told him he could enroll at West Virginia University for free under the GI Bill, that spark reignited.

At WVU’s Morgantown campus, Dooley studied drama and drama and made silent films with his friends. Occasionally he and his classmate, future star Don Knotts, would drive the 70 miles to Pittsburgh to see the comics that opened the burlesque shows there.

After graduating in 1952, he and his first wife went to New York City, where Dooley, the actor who dreamed of seeing his name in lights, soon ended up in a different kind of makeup when Dooley the Clown was working and Pratfalls made for school children pays his rent.

Bright lights, big city

Nine years later, Dooley got his breakthrough.

By the ’50s he’d worked on the fringes of show business, gaining experience but seldom landing the kind of gig that could lead to anything big.

Still, a few moments stood out, like the time he was cast in the New York debut of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera in an off-Broadway production, or his steady, if poorly paid, work as a stand-up comedian on.

For several summers he worked as a comedian in the resort towns of upstate New York, where actors, comedians and musicians from the city put together revues to entertain guests

“It took me nine years to make any money,” says Dooley of his slow journey through the ’50s. “But in between I had some very nice jobs. I worked with Carol Burnett at a place called Green Mountains.

“I was working the door of the Village Vanguard, which is where I saw Mike and Elaine when they first came to New York,” he says of seminal comedians and writers Mike Nichols and Elaine May. “I saw Lenny Bruce there. I have to see Miles Davis and Coltrane and all these people.”

One summer, he met and fell in love with one of his co-workers at Timberland Resort. They married and had two children when Dooley’s career took off in 1961 after landing his first major TV commercial role as spokesperson for Fab Laundry Detergent.

“That was the turning point when I got my first commercial, which became a big deal for me,” says Dooley. “That 40,000 guaranteed after living on $3,000 a year in the ’50s.”

success, then trouble

It stayed good in the 60’s.

Steady commercial work filled the decade, interspersed with legitimate theatrical work. He was cast in Broadway’s The Odd Couple as one of Oscar and Felix’s poker friends. When Art Carney left the show, Dooley replaced him as Felix over Walter Matthau as Oscar.

When the Second City comedy troupe came to New York City from Chicago, he discovered his love and natural talent for improvisation and performed with them regularly in Greenwich Village for a long time.

But it wasn’t good at home. Towards the end of the decade, he and his wife separated and shared custody of their daughter and son.

Dooley stayed busy as his background in comedy and commercials led him to a new gig as a co-creator of the Children’s Television Workshop’s new series The Electric Company, which debuted in 1971.

“I brought my sense of humor with me,” says Dooley. “I was an improviser before I was an improviser. I always like satire or joke or parody. I’m a minimalist.”

And that worked perfectly for The Electric Company, which was designed to help kids learn to read in one fun package. The cast featured Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Luis Avelos, with contributions from Mel Brooks, Irene Cara, Carol Burnett and more.

“One of the things we did in our commercials was to camouflage the message of the commercial in the humor,” says Dooley. “It was perfect for a children’s show because of the kids’ attention spans. You don’t do a 10 minute sketch, you do a minute or two minute scenes.”

The boy who loved jokes was now allowed to make jokes for a new generation, although he also found the work entertaining for himself.

“I made little private jokes for myself and they became feature films,” says Dooley of some of the regular characters he created. Like Child Chef Julia Grownup, a game named after the real chef Julia Child, or the detective character named Fargo North, Decoder, a game about city and state.

Then, one summer day in the early ’70s, when Dooley’s children were on vacation with his ex-wife, a letter arrived.

“I’ll take the children with me,” was partly read. “We’re not coming back.”

sorrow to happy days

“When it happened, I had a strange feeling that it might be my fault,” says Dooley. “You think, ‘What could I have said or done to make this happen? Well you forgot the fact that my ex-wife had her own issues for reasons of her own.”

Dooley hired detectives. He went to court and obtained an injunction that gave him sole custody. But no traces of the children could be found.

“It was almost traumatic for the first three months,” he says. “But I haven’t told friends. I didn’t want to feel sorry or anything. I was only hurt, but I was very passive and just ate it.

“The New York (TV news) catchphrase was, ‘It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your kids are?’ says Dooley. “What could be worse? Any night it could be on the network I’ve been looking at.”

Finally, after a year, he made the difficult decision to end his active efforts to find her.

“I was like, ‘What if I find her?'” says Dooley. “By the law, I could take her back. I thought that might traumatize her a second time.”

A decade or so passed. Then came a tip with the location of his daughter. Soon, if hesitantly at first, Dooley and his now young adult children were reunited.

He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife Winnie Holzman, a screenwriter and playwright who has been married for four decades, recently adapted into film.

They have one daughter together, and Dooley’s older children remain close to their father, having rebuilt bonds and making up for lost moments in the decades since they reunited.

“We are each other’s constant companions,” he says of his wife and the happiness he eventually found in his family. “And not a day goes by that we don’t make each other laugh hundreds of times, big and small.” Paul Dooley became ‘Movie Dad’ despite his own children disappearing for a decade – Orange County Register

Adam Bradshaw

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