28 February 2006

Fra-jeeel-eh -- Must be Italian!

It's a normal reaction that when watching a film, we are drawn to the main characters. Especially when we're kids or teens, watching a kid/teen-friendly film, the stars of the show are the actors with whom we can identify -- from Henry Thomas in E.T. to Sean Aston in The Goonies to Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller.

Every once in a while, though, a movie comes along in which the Dad steels the show.

Usually the Dad is a secondary part, a foil for the trials and tribulations the kids are going through. A part generally cast with a venerable character actor, the Dad is part of the tapestry that makes up the kid's life, but does not occupy a front-and-center role.

The most memorable Dads, though, take their bit parts and turn them into cinematic legend. Who will ever forget Peoria native David Ogden Stiers as Al Meyer in Better Off Dead? Or even better, Paul Dooley as Ray Stohler in Breaking Away? Between just these two, you could fill an entire highlight reel of non-sequeters and one-liners.

Perhaps one of the best performances -- nearly on par with Dooley in its impact on kid-dom and the sheer excellence of the portrayal -- has to be Darren McGavin as the Old Man in the 1983 classic A Christmas Story. He was not the focus of Ralphie's life. He interacted little with the children at all, in fact. But what McGavin did as a furnace-battling, hound-dog hating, turkey-loving, work-a-day family man will forever be a part of history.

Who can forget the quizzical look when Randy pops out from under the sink? Or the swearing/non-swearing so perfectly executed every time the furnace broke or the Bumpus hounds invaded? And how about the haggling and the tire changing? And above all, we will always remember "It's a Major Award!" that he won, and the "Fra-jeeel-eh -- Must be Italian!" written on the crate that delivered THE LAMP.

It was with great sadness, then, that I read about Darren McGavin's death this weekend. I had heard about Don Knotts, but in the craziness of the news coverage, somehow Ralphie's Old Man had slipped through the cracks. I had no idea of everything else he had done -- every time I saw him on the big or little screen, he was always "the dad from A Christmas Story."

Thanks to the miracle of film, his legacy will live on. But passings like these always make me stop and think -- and this is one case where I am sad that he is gone, but happy to have seen his work. And in his honor, I think tonight just might be a movie night -- and maybe we'll have duck. "Get your coat ... we're going OUT for dinner."


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