The time: 1971
The place: New Jersey
The man: Roy Scheider, actor, star of Jaws, French Connection, All that Jazz, Russia House
It was terrible growing up with my father, he was a strict disciplinarian. He physically abused me and beat the hell out of me. My biggest crime was always opening my mouth and disagreeing with him; that was not tolerated at all. Unfortunately I was against almost everything he stood for; he was a blue collar worker, first a mechanical shop engineer and later a service station owner.
I was the oldest son and from the age of 11 he would come after me with his fists, chase me to another room and pummel me to the ground. I never fought back physically except when he made me put on boxing gloves and we would fight for fun! But he would never let me win.
When you're an adolescent you start to think for yourself and I realised that all the nonsense my father had been filling my head with was not particularly true. He was a man with deep prejudices: a racist and a sexist. As a way of becoming independent of him I had to find a voice. What amazes me was that I was quite willing to take the abuse in order to get my licks in and let him know that he wasn't fooling me. My mother was the Irish martyr who constantly defended my father, so when he attacked me she never came to my defence. I was alone. It was pretty frightening. Dealing with violence as a child makes you very gun shy and suspicious of authority.
I became an actor to escape, pumping all my energy into playing other people in order to avoid playing myself. I was making a decent living on Broadway and beginning to make a name in films. But I never had any recognition from my father.
In 1971, I was at home in Manhattan and I received a phone call from the producer of The French Connection telling me that I had been nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. I immediately called my parents in New Jersey and got my mother on the line. I blurted out: "Guess what Ma?" She thought the news was wonderful and I heard her yell into another part of the house to tell my father, then she came back on the phone and we continued the conversation. I hung up and I started walking round the apartment in New York, something was troubling me. Finally I put my finger on it. Why didn't my father get up and come to the phone? Why didn't he say anything? I knew why - he was a man who just didn't do things like that. He didn't throw compliments around. With an Oscar nomination the whole world was recognising my ability - everybody, that is, except my father.
It made me feel really hurt. The feelings brewed for a couple of days until I decided to do something. I got in the car and drove over to my parents. I explained to my mother how I wanted to talk to my father alone and threw her out of the house.
When my father came home and sat down in the kitchen for his lunch, I told him: "I've spent the best part of my life trying to please you and to make you proud of me. But it doesn't seem to work, so this time I want you to tell me that you love me!" He looked at me as if I'd gone crazy but he replied: "You know I do." I was angry with him but also very determined: "Don't tell me what I know, don't tell me what you tell other people. Regardless of the past I want you to tell me now, right now, that you love me."
My father's face began to turn red and veins came out on his forehead and he choked out: "I love you." I thanked him and told him: "I love you too, but I wanted to hear you say it." I had finally asked him to act like a father. I got up and left the kitchen and nothing more was said. I told him what I needed and what I demanded and it felt good.
About a year later at a Christmas gathering I asked my mother if dad had ever talked about what was said that special day but he hadn't even mentioned it to her - not at all.
It was a turning point in my life because I had to face the fact that I had a father, like the one in my latest movie Myth of the Fingerprints, who just finds it impossible to be supportive and loving. Yet his admission did change things between us; it wasn't rosy or perfect from then on, but at least he had a different view of me. He would ask me what projects I was doing and he now had a new interest in me. He recognised that I was there - an individual distinct from him. All I ever got was the plain simple "I love you" - that's it. He certainly didn't phone and commiserate when I didn't win the Oscar. But it was enough, at last I had forced it out of the son of a bitch and I could go away with some dignity.
I became a man on that day, it was like a ritual or ceremony that I needed to move into another phase of my life.
Finally I figured that it was time for me to explore my own personality. It was most probably the richest vein I could tap, yet we're all a little reluctant to do it because we don't want to deal with the pain. Therapy became a lifeline. Finding someone to tell all this to who understood was vital. We all need support, especially if you're harbouring resentments like I did against my mother and father.
One of the great tragedies of this world is that we turn into our parents. I have an older daughter who's 34, and from my new marriage, a boy of eight and a girl of three. At my very worst I sound just like my father! A little boy of eight can become very irritable and stubborn. When I find myself screaming at him or getting out of control, that's the way my father would behave. It's terrible but at least I understand, which is more than my father did. At my very best, which thankfully is most days, I am not like him at all!
Knowing my father's difficulty with expressing his emotions was an enormous help to me when I played the father in Myth of the Fingerprints. It's about a dysfunctional family where nobody says what they're really thinking or feeling. It was a great opportunity to crawl into my own father's skin and realise how difficult it was for him. So it's been a valuable personal experience, too.
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
`Myth of the Fingerprints' is currently on general release.Reuse content