My Reel Dad

My father, Jack Bradley, passed away five years ago May 12. One of the ways I keep my memories of him alive is posting this piece which I wrote when he died in 2009.

My father loved movies. The tiny apartment he shared with my mom was inundated with more than 1,000 movies on tape and DVD, films he'd carefully cataloged and conscientiously cross-referenced by title, director, and actor.

I watched a lot of those movies with him over the years, especially his favorites like Young at Heart, Dave, Return to Me, The American President and Casablanca.


Until cancer got the better of him five years ago, my dad's evening ritual was a good meal with my mom, a glass of wine and a movie, the two of them cuddled together on the couch like a couple of dreamy teenagers.

Back then, I'd call the next day and ask him what movie they had watched the previous evening. My dad would pause for a minute, let out a laugh, and then call out to my mom: "What did we watch last night?"

Eventually, it was more than my dad's memory that failed him. I urged him to draw strength from Rocky or It's a Wonderful Life or Brian's Song. He didn't. And on May 12, 2009, the lost his battle against prostate cancer.

And now, without him here to pick a movie anymore, I'm not sure what I should watch to remember him best. So, I decided to return to his detailed filmography for inspiration, believing I'd find few, if any, movies that would speak to me and my misery about my dad's being gone for another year.

I was wrong.

There was a flood of films that resonated with me, including many that forced me to choke back tears. Movies like All My Sons, A River Runs Through It, Old Yeller, I Never Sang for my Father and more brought a surge of memories and video clips and scenes that brought on other scenes, "real" ones from my life with my father.


I know in my heart that there is much more than movies that connect me and my dad, our shared experiences as veterans of different wars and battlers against prostate cancer among them. But it has taken me more than 60 years to understand why he so loved to watch these films -- how they, and his nearly seven decades of companionship with my mother, were the true magic in his life, how for two or more hours every night he'd wrap himself in one of these movies, an experience that for him was liberating and transforming and transporting.

Movies were an escape for my father. They showed him that there were other lives to be lived and different places to visit and special moments to cherish, even if they only existed on celluloid. Still, they represent the threads of his life as real as any experience he personally lived.

The truth is that my dad didn't have it so good -- an abusive, alcoholic father; an unhappy, suffocating mother; the Depression; World War II and, by my count, 26 different jobs, none of which ever seemed to make him happy or fulfilled.

But he had my mother, and he had me and my brother. Six grandchildren and three great grandchildren (now four)

And he had his movies.

When my dad and I began the journey to our final goodbye, I indicated to him that I might just become the caretaker of his beloved movies.

"But will I have to watch every one of those really, really old flicks," I joked.

"You'll probably want to start with Pinocchio," he'd obviously thought I was serious. "Because that was the first movie I recall ever taking you to see. Then move on to Old Yeller... "

Eventually, I'd get around to Field Of Dreams, my dad and I symbolically reunited as actors in a movie, playing catch, smiling, becoming larger than life on the big screen itself...