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In the early '60s, the esteemed playwright and film scenarist Robert W. Anderson (Tea and Sympathy, 1956) penned a screenplay about the growing strains in a forty-something man's relationship with his aging father as a means of working through similar conflicts in his own life. As the decade progressed, the project took a sidetrack to Broadway before being ultimately committed to celluloid. As a result the film often feels slightly stagebound but I Never Sang for My Father (1970) holds up well because of its refusal to sugarcoat tough issues and the showcase it provides for two premier acting talents of American cinema.
The movie opens on widowed New York college professor Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) as he makes an airport rendezvous with his elderly parents, just returned from Florida for the winter. Gene has recently fallen in love with a divorced California doctor, and is wrestling with how to broach the issue of his relocation with the folks. Dealing with his father Tom (Melvyn Douglas), a former lion of local industry and politics, is seldom easy; the old man is cantankerous, overbearing, and dismissive of his son's own accomplishments, sneering at the jacket photo of Gene's recent book as "unmanly." He gives half-hearted blessings to Gene's marriage plans, but asserts that his wife Margaret (Dorothy Stickney) will be unable to deal with it; Margaret privately assures her son that the reverse would be the case.
The situation is placed in upheaval with Margaret's unexpected death. Gene is torn by Tom's less-than-sincere contentions that he can fend for himself. Complicating matters is the arrival for the funeral of Gene's sister Alice (Estelle Parsons). She has been estranged for years from Tom, who has never forgiven her for marrying a Jew, and she finds herself pleading with her brother not to live his life for the old man. The story's windup leaves Gene having to confront his father and make some hard choices about their respective destinies.
Anderson frankly paralleled his own life situation in I Never Sang for My Father; his first wife died young in the mid-'50s, and he remarried a few years later to actress Teresa Wright. His original 1962 screenplay was entitled The Tiger, and Fred Zinnemann expressed interest in helming the film if Spencer Tracy could be persuaded to play the father; Tracy's declining health, however, forced him to bow out. John Frankenheimer was intrigued by the script, and a tentative deal was reached that would feature Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as the elder Garrisons. Time constraints ultimately led Frankenheimer to pass.
Anderson then heeded the advice of Elia Kazan and reworked his opus for the stage. The play had a 124-performance Broadway run in 1968, with British actor Alan Webb taking the role of the old man; the cast was rounded out by Hal Holbrook as Gene, Lillian Gish as Margaret, and Wright as Alice. The show's producer, Gilbert Cates, was convinced of the story's potential for the screen; he secured the rights, and prepared to direct, as well as produce, the adaptation with Anderson committed to recrafting the story for the camera.
Douglas had declined the role of Tom Garrison in the Broadway production, as had March, Edward G. Robinson, Ralph Richardson, and Alfred Lunt. In his autobiography, Douglas indicated that he had fewer reservations with the screenplay that Cates approached him with in 1969. "I thought it much improved and made a few suggestions designed to clarify the character of the embittered old man," Douglas wrote. "Cates returned almost immediately with rewrites...Having involved myself this deeply, I committed myself to doing the role onscreen."
As quoted in Allan Hunter's biography Gene Hackman, Douglas' co-star recalled that the experience of making the film "wasn't gratifying...It only worked because of what people brought to it." The project did provide the actor an excellent vehicle to present a softer-edged characterization than those he had previously committed to film, and critics and audiences came to recognize the extent of his range as a result.
The gravity of the material almost certainly predestined I Never Sang for My Father for prestige rather than big box-office returns. The film secured respective Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay nominations for Douglas, Hackman and Anderson, but the prizes ultimately went to George C. Scott (Patton), John Mills (Ryan's Daughter) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (M*A*S*H). Hackman's hoped-for career boost from the project didn't materialize, but all that would change the following year with an Oscar® and A-list status thanks to The French Connection (1971).
Producer/Director: Gilbert Cates
Screenplay: Robert W. Anderson
Cinematography: Morris Hartzband, George Stoetzel
Film Editing: Angelo Ross
Art Direction: Hank Aldrich
Music: Al Gorgoni, Barry Mann
Cast: Melvyn Douglas (Tom Garrison), Gene Hackman (Gene Garrison), Dorothy Stickney (Margaret Garrison), Estelle Parsons (Alice), Elizabeth Hubbard (Peggy), Lovelady Powell (Norma).
by Jay S. Steinberg