[Editor’s Note – This column originally ran on the site on April 20, 2011.]
In my next life, I’m really hoping I come back as a stegosaurs.
But if that doesn’t pan out and I am instead fated to be reincarnated as a child with an absentee father, I really hope my dad is character actor Gary Cole. That guy really seems like he would be the best dead beat dad ever.
In case you missed it, this week on Chuck Cole reprised his role as Jack Burton, Sarah Walker’s conman father who breezed in and out of her life during her childhood teaching her one simple lesson: “Once you know all the cons, you can never be a sucker.” This mentality helped Sarah to excel as a cold-hearted superspy working for the federal government.
But Cole is perhaps best known for playing Ricky Bobby’s absentee father in Talladega Nights. Reese Bobby, a man who enjoys driving fast and doing peyote, gave his son a rule to live by that ended up being the foundation for his entire racing career: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” (Reese, of course, humorously undermined this advice years later when he told Ricky Bobby: “Oh hell, Son, I was high that day. That doesn’t make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth … hell you can even be fifth,” but by that point the lesson had already stuck.)
In both cases, the mix of abandoning his child and giving him/her a maxim to live by helped mold the kid into the person they would eventually become. In a strange way, his terrible parenting was directly responsible for making his offspring awesome.
But there’s more to it than that.
Most absentee fathers on TV tend to fall into two categories – both of which, oddly enough, have been embodied recently by John Lithgow on How I Met Your Mother. Lithgow plays Jerome Whittaker, Barney Stinson’s estranged father on the show.
When Lithgow first abandoned Barney, he was “Crazy Jerry,” a boozing, womanizing roadie who just couldn’t handle the responsibilities of fatherhood, so he hit the road leaving his wife and son behind. This is the first type of deadbeat dad – too self-absorbed and too messed up to take care of his family.
In the present, Barney is attempting to reconnect with his dad, who is now a completely changed man. Jerome has a new wife and a new son and is a completely responsible father with a boring job and a fondness for weekend fishing trips. Until Barney shows up on his doorstep, he has pretty much buried his past and has pretended Barney doesn’t exist. This makes the abandonment sting all the more for Barney – he can’t understand why Jerry can do this with his new family, but couldn’t do it with him and his mom. This is the second type of absentee father – the one who left his family for greener pastures and has trouble looking back.
Somehow, Cole’s characters never come across as either one of these extremes. Yes, he tends to be self-absorbed and carrying his share of demons, but it’s never quite as dark as on other shows and he never abandons his kids quite as dramatically. He wants to be a good dad and be involved with his kids, but knows that in the long run his wanderlust and need for adventure will cause him to leave the kid behind and hit the road once more. He also knows that the kid is probably better off spending the bulk of his/her time with a more responsible parental figure.
When he is in town, it’s always exciting. You never know what you are going to get with him, but you know it will be fun. Perhaps he’s going to show up at your school and give the best Career Day speech ever. Or, he’s going to send you door to door selling Girl Scout cookies as part of your very first con. (Future con lessons from him will allow you to have an adorable moment where you teach your stuffed animals the shell game.) Or he might just make a scene and get kicked out of an Applebee’s. Whatever the case, I guarantee it will be a day you remember forever.
When his kids become adults and he once again tries to reconnect, things get even more fun. If you’ve lost your mojo and need a little guidance from dear old dad, he’s going to put you in a sports car with a deadly cougar or help you plan a last minute wedding as part of an elaborate con. And afterwards, chances are he’s going to get kicked out of another Applebee’s.
What’s most engaging about Cole is how endearing he is. Is he a bad father? Yes. But it’s impossible to stay mad at the guy. In Talladega Nights, you are totally rooting for him to reconnect with the family. And on this week’s Chuck when Sarah found the piggy bank full of cash left for her on the bed, it was an incredibly touching and powerful moment.
So if the stegosaurs thing doesn’t pan out, I’m pulling for Gary Cole to be my deadbeat dad in my next life. We can have so many wonderful adventures together and he can help me achieve my dream of one day becoming a rock star ninja cowboy. I just pray the universe doesn’t misunderstand and accidentally make him my boss instead. I don’t think I can handle all of those damn TPS reports.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.