A father’s favourite movie

My dad loved Johnathan Livingston Seagull . I don’t mean “he was a fan.” I mean that he genuinely loved everything about Richard Bach’s story. He loved the book he loved the audio recording he loved the 1973 movie and he loved Neil Diamond’s soundtrack of the film.

The story basks in a love of flight something Dad could definitely relate to. He owned an ultralight aircraft and spent his free time zooming through the sky in what amounted to little more than a winged deckchair with a propeller. He was a film buff (a passion that I inherited) and would always show particular interest in any film that had an airplane in it. But it wasn’t the planes that caught his attention — it was flight itself. After all there are no planes in Johnathan Livingston Seagull . No human beings either. It’s a story populated entirely by birds.

If a live-action film starring only birds sounds peculiar to you you’re not alone. Lots of people found the movie weird and off-putting. But everybody in my family sees this film through my father’s eyes. We’d all catch a screening of Seagull at The Plaza theatre together and he’d be completely enchanted. He got it. And so did we.

As much as I enjoyed the film there were things about it that I decided to keep secret from Dad so as not to spoil his enjoyment of it if such a thing were possible. For example I didn’t let on the fact that Johnathan Livingston Seagull was the first movie that film critic Roger Ebert ever walked out on. Also there was a book on my shelf called The Fifty Worst Films of All Time that had a chapter on Seagull . There was no need for Dad to know either of these things so I kept quiet about them. There was also a third secret but I’ll get to that one momentarily.

Dad was an immensely positive person and there were very few people he didn’t like but for some reason he really disliked B-movie actor James Franciscus. I’m not sure what it was about Franciscus that rubbed him the wrong way but the mere mention of his name would make Dad groan. Which performance cemented Franciscus’ place in my father’s “worst actor of all time” list? The Greek Tycoon (1978)? Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)? The Valley of Gwangi (1969)? I never asked. (Some of you readers might have already guessed where I’m going with this.)

One day Dad and I were browsing at a video store (remember those?) and I took a closer look at the Johnathan Livingston Seagull VHS box. Then I said a very stupid thing. “Hey Dad!” I said surprised. “James Franciscus is in Johnathan Livingston Seagull !”

“WHAT?!?”

“Oh er nothing! Never mind!” I backpedalled. The topic was dropped and never mentioned again.

Based on his reaction I guess Dad never knew who had supplied the voice for his favourite cinematic seagull. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t recognize the hated actor’s voice illustrated the film’s power to engage my father on an emotional rather than critical level. We both intentionally forgot my little faux pas and he went back to not knowing the dreadful “Franciscus secret.” He kept re-reading the book and played the movie soundtrack when he flew in air shows.

My Dad passed away in 2004 and we played Neil Diamond’s beautiful music from the Seagull soundtrack at the funeral while some pilot friends did a fly-over above the grounds. Dad would have loved it.

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