Joel Bellman: the Atticus-Andy connection

"I just met a wonderful new man," Mia Farrow's Cecilia breathlessly tells a friend in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. "He's fictional, but you can't have everything."

Movies no longer dominate popular entertainment as they did in the Depression, but we still sympathize with poor besotted Cecilia in her adulation of those matinee idols and the characters that - in her case, quite literally - they bring to life.

Consider the outpouring of grief over the recent death of Andy Griffith. It's been 50 years since we first encountered Sheriff Andy Taylor and little Opie in their idealized hometown of Mayberry.

Yet even today, a kinder, gentler, wiser father is nearly impossible to imagine. Unless, of course, we're talking about Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, equally devoted to his children, Jem and Scout, but also worldly, learned, principled and courageous in a dark and turbulent era.

Why do these make-believe dads exert such a powerful grip on our collective imaginations? Maybe because they're both rural Southerners, which connotes - especially to us cynical city folk - a kind of rustic purity and authenticity? Because they're both widowers, struggling largely alone to do right by their kids, adding an overlay of nobility and pathos to their situation? Was it their shared commitment to the administration of justice that conferred a special gravitas and moral authority?

It was all these things, but it was also something else: they were the perfect dads who never complained, never lost patience, never drank too much, never argued with mom, never worried about money, never compromised, never were beaten down, never just "settled." To the contrary, they were beloved throughout their communities, admired by everyone as fonts of wisdom and exemplars of leadership. Atticus Finch, in fact, was voted in a 2003 American Film Institute poll as the greatest hero in American film.

No mortal parent could possibly compete with that, and mortality was very much on my mind when I recently paid an anniversary visit to the grave of my father, Samuel Irving Bellman. His final years were not happy ones. He died in 2009 after several years of failing health that entailed both physical infirmity and accelerating mental decline that left him increasingly argumentative, sullen and depressed.

A lifelong academic, he struggled in vain with indifferent students and insensitive administrators. He retired with great bitterness, no doubt wondering, by the end, if it had really all been for nought.

His professional life unspooled like a classic tragedy - as I abruptly realized a few months after his death when I saw a local production of Terrence Rattigan's The Browning Version. The protagonist is a professor of classics facing the end of both his marriage and his career, crushed by a sense of futility and failure. In the depths of his despair, a former student pays him a call, bearing a small gift of thanks: a copy of The Agamemnon by Aeschylus, which the student has painstakingly inscribed to him in the original Greek with a quote from the play: "God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master." Overcome with emotion, the professor breaks down as he finally realizes that his life did indeed have meaning and significance after all.

My father never experienced a comparable epiphany for himself; one former student did indeed pay tribute to his qualities as a gentle master - at his memorial service. But this being Hollywood, I thought I'd try and write him a happier ending: a few months later, I borrowed Rattigan's quote and gave it to my father for his epitaph.

I know it's fictional. But you can't have everything.

Joel Bellman is a former journalist and current communications deputy for Los Angeles county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

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