In honor of Father’s Day, we’re revisiting our most memorable episodes on fathers and the meaning of fatherhood. First up:
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Hoffman had three children, a son and two daughters, with his partner Mimi O’Donnell. He died from an accidental drug overdose in 2014 — a little more than a year after this interview was recorded. During that conversation, Hoffman talked about something at the root of finding happiness: children.
“There’s a period of time in your life where I kind of look back and I think, “Was I happy? Or was I just not aware?” It seems like a very basic question, but I really do think you reach a time where you go, “I don’t know.” It really does up-end a lot of things in your own life and in your own mind” But in my life now I think, I have three children and I think I’m happy when I’m with them and they’re okay. When I see them enjoying each other in front of me, and then they let me enjoy them in turn. That brings a feeling which I would say is happiness. Now I don’t know why. I mean I do know why, obviously, on the surface because they’re my kids, but it is a certain thing that happens, and I’m like, right now. Right now. This is it.”
“But there are moments when something else creeps in there. And I’m not conscious of the love. I’m conscious of something else, which happens to be my own childhood. So all of a sudden, they start to reflect something other than what I hoped my childhood to be. Being with a kid always takes you to being a kid somehow, and they really are showing me a childhood I might not have had in some way. But if something else creeps in, it becomes a different kind of reflection. It’s of your shortcomings, your inadequacies, your incapabilities, your powerlessness, and on and on and on, which wakens up a whole other thing. That’s what I mean about happiness. Does it mean it ends, it ended? That gets so discouraging to me, about well, “What is this thing?”
Feynman was born in Queens in 1918 to Lucille and Melville Feynman. The elder Feynman had immigrated to the U.S. from Belarus as a child, and though he didn’t have a great deal of education himself, he stoked his son’s interests in the world around him and actively encouraged him to study science. In this episode, Feynman explains what his father taught him.
“The story is that before I was born he told my mother that “If it’s a boy, he’ll be a scientist.”
“My father used to sit me on his lap, and the one book we did use all the time was the Encyclopedia Britannica. He used to sit me on his lap when I was a kid and read out of the damned thing. There would be pictures of dinosaurs, and then he would read. You know the long words –- “the dinosaur” so and so “attains a length of so and so many feet.” He would always stop and he would say, “You know what that means? It means, if the dinosaur’s standing on our front yard, and your bedroom window, you know, is on the second floor, you’d see out the window his head standing looking at you. He would translate everything, and I learned to translate everything, so it’s the same disease. When I read something, I always translate it in the best I can into what does it really mean.”
“See I can remember my father talking, talking, and talking. When you go into the museum, for example, there are great rocks which have long cuts, grooves in them, from glacier. I remember, the first time going there, when he stopped there and explained to me about the ice moving and grinding. I can hear the voice, practically. Then he would tell me, “How do you think anybody knows that there were glaciers in the past?” He’d point out, “Look at that. These rocks are found in New York. And so there must have been ice in New York.” He understood.”
“A thing that was very important about my father was not the facts but the process. How we find out. What is the consequence of finding such a rock. But that’s the kind of guy he was. I don’t think he ever successfully went to college. However, he did teach himself a great deal. He read a lot. He liked the rational mind, and liked those things which could be understood by thinking. So it’s not hard to understand I got interested in science.”
As a child, Burnett was left in the care of her grandmother, “a hypochondriacal Christian scientist,” while her parents were out trying to “make it” in Hollywood. Her parents later divorced and her father, who was an alcoholic, was an intermittent presence. Years later, Burnett talked about the importance her dad played in her life.
“He was a drunk Jimmy Stewart. It’s the way I’ve always described daddy.”
“But when I was about 10, he went on the wagon. His mother, my paternal grandmother was ill. And she made him promise not to drink and he was living with her. So he didn’t. And he would come and pick me up every weekend and we would get on the street car then transfer to the bus and go to the beach. They lived out in Santa Monica. And I had a dad. And when I looked in his eyes, he was there. He was home. And I was enamored of him. And she died. And the day of the funeral, he showed up at the little room where Nanny [Burnett’s grandmother] and I lived and he was weaving.”
“That’s the most angry and the most disappointed I think I have ever been in my life.”
In 1922, the ground-breaking architect and his wife Anne lost their first child, a daughter named Alexandra, to complications from polio and spinal meningitis. She was only three years old. Fuller fell into a deep depression for a time, and it was only when his second daughter was born that he found the resolve to begin the work for which he would later become known.
“By 1927 our second child was born and I had suddenly a new child after 5 years of going without the girl we loved so much. I said I got a chance now to look out for this new life and I’m going to have to really re-think everything I have. I had absolutely no money and suddenly this new child and everybody tells you you got to earn a living. I said I think this is absolutely a blinding thing. I’m either going to say you go out to make money or you’re going to make sense.”
“I recall in Chicago wheeling my little child in her baby carriage in Lincoln Park. I was amazed, because a little biplane went over Lincoln Park. Air planes were not very common in those days. I said, “Isn’t it amazing. Here’s my child looking up at that airplane and that airplane in the sky is as natural to her as a bird.” Because when I was born, the airplane did not exist. It was really the start of the beginning of impossible things happening.”
Updike and first wife Mary had 4 children: Elizabeth, Michael, David, and Miranda. They moved from New York City to suburban Long Island so that Updike could concentrate on writing a novel and never returned to city life, or as Updike put it: “a sabbatical that turned into a lifestyle.” In this early Blank on Blank, Updike explains why he headed for the ‘burbs.
“If I was going to be a New York culture vulture, I shouldn’t have gotten married and had children.”
“Basically children are very… They pin you down. And if I was going to be pinned down, if we were going to be pinned down, why not be pinned down at least somewhere where we could park the car for free and get some free air, grass and sunshine and so on.”
“There is something very nice about having children in a home. They bring into it all the new things. The new gadgets. The new words. So that it’s a plus for a writer up to a point to have children around. But after awhile they do get to be distracting. So I rented a room and tried to go to work.”
The famed author had a troubled childhood; after her parents divorced, Angelou and her brother bounced between their mother’s home and that of their grandparents. When she was eight years old, Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Her mother later married the man she called Daddy Clidell, who became the most consistent father figure in her life. In this classic episode, we let Angelou share one of the grand lessons he taught her: the power of con-men.
“Daddy Clidell owned pool halls and gambling houses. Daddy Clidell knew the racket. So he taught me how to look at cards and see if they were marked, how to weigh dice and know if they’re loaded. Then he brought in a lot of con men. Professional con men, who maybe take 2 marks a year.”
“My dad, daddy… He’d call the guys in and, “y’all, come on in here, fellows. I want you to tell my baby here how you sold that supermarket in Dallas. I’m raising this girl. I got to educate her.” So they told me not only the supermarket, but they sold a bridge in Oklahoma. Yes. One man said that, “you see, you use the white man’s bigotry against him.”