Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


Famous Fathers & Sons

Posted on

The son of a celebrity may have it made financially, but he’s vulnerable to every other growing strain—with a vengeance. Like, why was the old man always away? Should the boy go into Daddy’s business, and if he does, will the world say he made it only because of nepotism? And what if he doesn’t make it? PEOPLE confronted 10 rising sons and demanding dads with these complex questions in commemoration of Father’s Day 1979 (and in tribute, too, to the mothers in the middle).

Michael Douglas has made Kirk one proud grandpa

For Kirk Douglas, the high point of the Cannes Film Festival was greeting son Michael, 34, and grandson Cameron, 5 months, at the airport. Kirk was there adorning the Croisette as a 62-year-old sex symbol and Michael was glowing in the glory of his film The China Syndrome, which won the best-actor award.

If Michael, who produced as well as co-starred, is the hotter property at the moment, it wasn’t always so. “Kirk Douglas was certainly a hard act to follow,” says Michael. “I mean, there he was hanging from the cross in Spartacus, walking across the ranks of oars in The Vikings…” Agrees Kirk: “I think having a famous father was a pain in the ass for him.”

Still, Michael managed, bolstered in part by a stable home life. (Though his parents divorced when he was 5, his mother has been remarried 23 years and his father 25.) Michael didn’t decide to be an actor until his senior year at the University of California. “I guess that the sons of famous fathers are all late bloomers,” he says. “I knew the sons of film stars who committed suicide, took drugs. I consider myself fortunate.” In any case, Douglas and wife Diandra are determined to keep Cameron away from Hollywood. “I guess,” laughs Michael, “I’ll have to think about raising him to cope with the famous-father syndrome.”

He grew up a Wyeth, but Jamie wasn’t a model son

Unlike so many other eminent men, Andrew Wyeth was not an absentee dad. In fact, son Jamie, now 30 and a notable painter himself, recalls: “Father was always home.” So, for that matter, was the boy. Convinced that art was his calling, he dropped out of school (as did Dad) after sixth grade in Chadds Ford, Pa. Jamie did take correspondence courses but devoted himself to art. His father gave him little formal instruction, but tough criticism (“There is not much bullshit about him,” notes the son). In matters of the heart, Andrew, a hot-blooded romantic in his youth, also exerted influence. “At 14 I had a 23-year-old mistress,” smiles Jamie. “He set a bad example.”

Jamie, married for 10 years to Phyllis Mills, pals around with Rudi Nureyev and Andy Warhol, but says his dad, 61, is his closest friend. They screen old movies, dress up in costumes and have never outgrown their passion for toy soldiers. (Perhaps their love of childlike things comes from the original artist in the family: Andrew’s father, N. C, was the famed illustrator of Treasure Island and other juvenile classics.) At least, though, the Wyeths spare each other youthful tantrums. “We’re similar in that we don’t have tempers,” reports Jamie. “We sort of blow ourselves out in our work.”

Now Bump Wills is stealing Dad’s stuff

Elliot Taylor Wills got his nickname from his prenatal gymnastics, and as “Little Bumpy” he matured into a superb athlete—with minimal help from his dad, retired Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills. “We weren’t at all close when I was a kid,” says Bump, as he is now called. “It was hard to accept discipline from a man who was only home two months out of the year.”

By the time Bump, now 26, was at Arizona State, Maury was concentrating on a sportscasting career—and had more time for his family. The senior Wills, 46, got Bump his first job with a team he managed in Mexico. The scouts were soon alerted, and the Texas Rangers signed Bump as a second baseman in 1977. “I wanted him to be a shortstop, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” says Maury. “My first season, I tried to play differently than Maury,” says Bump. Now he is swinging more like Dad and has shown some of Maury’s base-stealing talent. (He snagged 52 last year, but his father broke Ty Cobb’s record stealing 104 in 1962.)

Still, old inhibitions persist, and Bump’s childhood stutter sometimes recurs when his dad is around. As for his number on the playing field, 30—Maury’s old number—was in use when Bump arrived at the Rangers. Eventually it was up for grabs but Bump is #1 and plans to keep it that way.

Arthur Rubinstein’s not playing John’s song

After-dinner recitals by precocious offspring are trial enough for guests, but in the salon of piano virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein they were agony for the kids too. “We were on the front lines,” recalls composer and actor John Rubinstein, 32, about the impromptu concerts he and his older sister, Lolly, were required to deliver. “My father hung out with people like Stravinsky. Dinner didn’t mean chicken and noodles. It meant who did we have to play for this time.”

Despite those evenings, John was a staunch promoter of his dad’s career. In music shops he often slyly moved Rubinstein albums into the front of the racks. Arthur performed as many as 100 concerts a year and was constantly off in some foreign city. “I am very guilty,” admits Rubinstein, 92. “I didn’t find much time for the children, unfortunately.” Moreover, there was what John calls the “European” distance between his Polish-born parents and the children. “If I were to sit down and pour my heart out, they would be uncomfortable.”

Still, the family was close. “My parents bestowed enormous love on us,” says John, the youngest of four. In return, Arthur found he had sired his severest critics. “I heard him play one piece maybe 800 times,” John reports. “So when people were raving, I might come and tell him that he had done it too slowly—and he would know it too.”

Young John gradually shifted his interests to acting. After dropping out of UCLA, he starred in the movie Zachariah, played the title role in the Broadway musical Pippin and appeared often on TV’s Family. (Arthur tries never to miss any of his son’s performances.) In recent years John—now married to actress Judi West and the father of two—has also begun writing orchestral music—for movies like The Candidate and Jeremiah Johnson and for TV in The Ordeal of Patty Hearst. Would he consider dashing off something for the old man? Arthur answers for his son with a shrug: “He doesn’t write my kind of music.”

An Edsel, of all things, is in Ford’s future

At 16 he got his own car—a new silver-white Mustang—and at 30 he developed one. Edsel Bryant Ford IPs Falcon, a compact with polyurethane fuel tank and bumpers, is selling smartly in Australia, the country he and wife Cynthia temporarily call home. As assistant managing director of Ford’s operation Down Under, Henry’s only son is steering toward the top in the company. When Henry, 61, retires in October, the job of chief executive will go to Ford President Philip Caldwell. But Edsel’s turn may come. “There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be chairman if he has the ability,” Henry has said. “I hope so.”

Originally Edsel felt no pressure to go into the business. “When I graduated from Babson College, my father said, ‘Don’t ever feel you have to join the Ford Motor Company’—and that wasn’t just casually over a glass of wine one night. For years he said so.” But once Edsel signed on, he recalls, “My father and I had something more to talk about than the weather or how much weight I should lose or why I didn’t get better grades in college.”

Over the years Edsel has absorbed values from both parents. From his mother, Anne (who divorced Henry in 1964), he learned fastidiousness. “I take a shower twice a day if I’m going out for dinner,” says Edsel. From Henry he learned “a sense of fair play.” Edsel adds, “Dad always listens too. If I ever had a problem I’d tell him about it, whether I was right or wrong. Sometimes he’d say, ‘You were a jerk to do that, but now you have to live with it.’ ”

David Wallace changed his name, but not racket

When his first—and only—son was born in 1947, Irving Wallace recalls feeling: “I was out of my mind, that here is a boy carrying on my name, right?” Little did he know that 24 years later his son, David, would reassume the family’s ancestral name. At 31 the scion has published six books under the name David Wallechinsky. Three, The People’s Almanac #1 and #2 and The Book of Lists, were co-written with Irving, 63, the author of 22 works. How to survive as a father-and-son writing team? The Wallaces provide some tips (with a little help from a shrink):

(1) Rise above feelings of competitiveness. When the New York Times phoned the Wallaces’ Brentwood mansion to interview David, Irving likened it to a TV commercial—the one in which a girl asks Henry Fonda: “Aren’t you Jane Fonda’s father?”

(2) Be open. “I remember sitting down with David,” says Irving, “to have that great cartoon talk: sex.” But David recalls: “In the late ’50s it was bad taste to talk to your parents about sex. We learned from our peers.”

(3) Respect each other’s values. “I grew up in a traditional way. You married and had children,” says Irving. “Here’s David, living with a woman for five years [Flora Chavez], treating her as a wife. He has a legal contract with her. There’s no tension.”

(4) Don’t put pressure on each other. “I keep thinking about this Peanuts cartoon in which Linus had failed to make the honor roll at school,” says David. “He sighs and says, ‘There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.’ ”

Barry Goldwater Jr. wanted to campaign alone, thanks

“He’ll always be ‘Sir’ to me. He’ll always be that one degree higher,” says California Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr., 40, about his dad, the senator from Arizona. Nevertheless, the two Republican pols share a close if rather formal friendship—and a passion for flying, carpentry, photography and the great outdoors. “Thanks to him, I can still light a fire with one match,” says Barry Jr., who represents a district south of L.A.

Yet the son rides nobody’s coattails. The elder Goldwater, 70, recalls, “When he decided to run for office he called me at 3 in the morning to say he had made up his mind.” Barry Jr. also remembers: “I told him to stay home and send money. He did.” Once elected in 1969, the young congressman quickly established his own fields of expertise. (He has authored important right-to-privacy and energy legislation.) Still, subtle competition exists between father and son. “Occasionally we appear somewhere to speak together, and I’m determined to do better than he does…and I do,” says Goldwater Jr.

In raising his own son, Barry III, 4 (Goldwater Jr. was divorced this year), he makes a special effort to seek out the young boy’s opinions. “Dad did not do that with me,” Barry Jr. says. “I was an adult before he asked my opinion on something, and then I almost cried.”

Goldwater also intends to explain the facts of life to his son. “I can’t remember who told me about sex,” he shrugs. “I think I learned it on the job.”

Gypsy Rose Lee’s love child was a Preminger

Growing up the son of Gypsy Rose Lee had its bumps for her only child, Erik, now 34. “It was not easy to be the male child of a famous stripteaser. It was embarrassing. I was ashamed—and ashamed of being ashamed,” he says. His greatest trauma, however, was learning at age 17 that his real father was not Gypsy’s second husband, writer Alexander Kirkland, as he had always been told. Instead it was tyrannical film producer Otto Preminger, with whom his mother had had a three-week affair in Hollywood in 1944. (“Gypsy didn’t want anyone to know because she had an afternoon television show, watched by housewives, and she feared losing her audience,” explains Preminger.)

Shortly before Gypsy’s death in 1970, Preminger set up a meeting in Paris with his son, then a 22-year-old Army computer programmer. “Getting to know Erik was just like making friends with someone,” says his father. Recalls Erik: “I was a tightass when we met.” But a few “rip-roaring drunks” and chats about sex over the years helped loosen up the son. “Otto reveled in my life. He always wanted to know who I was seeing—and seemed a little wistful.”

Otto was also eager to make up for lost time. In 1971 he adopted Erik, who then took the Preminger name and joined his movie production company. Today, after a stint of scriptwriting with Elaine May, Erik is holed up in Los Angeles doing a biography of his mother. His second wife, Brigid Guinan, is a British Airways sales representative in San Francisco and they see each other on weekends. Otto, at 72, is filming his 33rd movie, Graham Greene’s The Human Factor. Father and son talk on the phone often, and Otto reports: “From the very first moment, we liked each other—and I love him.”

Carl Reiner had doubts, but Meathead didn’t listen

All in the Family, worried Carl Reiner when he first heard about the show, “sounds like a real crapshoot.” His son Rob had already taken the role of Archie Bunker’s maligned son-in-law, “Meathead.” But, after all, actor-director-writer-producer Carl, 57, was the guy who once said Rob “showed no talent.” He couldn’t believe it when producer Norman Lear, a family friend, had first found young Rob funny. “Are you kidding?” asked an incredulous Carl. “That surly kid?”

Growing up as one of the three Reiner offspring clearly had its trials. “People would come up to me and say: ‘Your father is wonderful, so talented and kind, so funny.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s great, but what about me? How do I figure in on this?’ ” says Rob, now 32. To make matters worse, communication with his father wasn’t always easy. Witness the obligatory sex talk. “We were driving along a busy thoroughfare in L.A. and I remember trying to be very cool,” says Carl. “To make sure I wasn’t embarrassing him, I looked him straight in the eye.” Rob’s only response was to cry out: “Dad, keep your eyes on the road!”

At Beverly Hills High School, Rob finally found his niche in a drama class with Richard Dreyfuss and Albert Brooks. “It was a group I could relate to,” says Rob. “Up until then I had been a loner.” After graduation he directed Dreyfuss in a local production of No Exit and finally won his father’s approval. “This is good. No bull,” said Carl. Still, the father refused to allow his son to read for a role in his movie Enter Laughing. “I feel bad now that I never helped, but I didn’t want to reject him,” says Carl. (Eventually Rob managed to land a role in Where’s Poppa?, directed by his father.)

After all the awkward times, Carl is now touchingly close to Rob and his wife, Penny (Laverne) Marshall. “He’s outstripped me in recognition and success at his age,” admits Carl with unabashed fatherly pride, “but happiness is the underlying thing I feel about that. Each generation gets a little better about understanding themselves.” Rob has come round to calling his dad “a very regular guy—he takes Ex-Lax.” But “seriously,” says Rob, “we had a very normal upbringing. I thought everybody had Mel Brooks over to the house.”

Joining Pop’s company was Chris D’Amboise’s turning point

Daddy was out dancing most of the time when Chris D’Amboise was growing up. “The responsibility of fatherhood consisted of a lot of guilt for not spending enough time at it,” says Jacques D’Amboise, 44, for 26 years a star of the allegedly starless New York City Ballet. Chris remembers Papa as “this frightening figure who would come home late at night after a performance and down five quarts of milk.” But Chris became the only one of Jacques’ four children with a lasting interest in ballet. At 19 he is now himself a member of the NYCB corps, and the dancing D’Amboises are the preeminent father-son team in American ballet.

That sometimes creates problems for Chris: “If I make a mistake, people say: ‘Just because he’s Jacques’ son, he thinks he can get away with anything.’ ” Then, too, there is the watchdog aspect. “If I’m feeling lousy one morning and don’t feel like working hard in class, there he is watching me,” says Chris.

In the 16 months since Chris joined the company, he has danced two ballets with his father. For Jacques, the greatest thrill of having a son in the family business was sitting in the audience one night with his wife, Carolyn George, a onetime soloist with the company (and now one of its photographers). Recalls Jacques: “He danced his first principal role, and we just sat there in the audience holding hands, watching our son.”