Remembering my dad
Haskell Wexler was so many things to so many people. A mentor. An innovator. An activist. A trusted friend. A beloved husband, grandfather, brother, uncle, cousin. I’d like to take this time to share some thoughts and memories of my life with the person Jeff, Kathy and I simply knew as our dad.
My dad came from great wealth and enjoyed the finer things in life, yet nonetheless considered himself a man of the people, and devoted his life to defending the downtrodden. As a schoolboy, he and his best friend Barney Rossett published a newspaper called “Against Everything”. When he was 25, he organized a workers strike for better wages…in his own his father's factory. Only a few days before he died, he urged me to read his latest Facebook post criticizing the excessive work hours in the film industry. No doubt this is part of the reason he lived so long – his passion to fight injustice kept him going. The Japanese call one’s life purpose “Ikigai” but I believe Darth Vader said it best; “The Force is strong with this one”.
I must confess that some of that rebelliousness seems to have been passed along to me. My father, who preferred the company of The Weather Underground, the Viet Cong, and other various dissidents, was absolutely appalled by my childhood dream of becoming a police officer. Yet, one of my fondest memories is the time he surprised me on my 9th birthday by borrowing a police car from a movie set and driving me around the neighborhood. It must have been torture for him to be seen in a squad car….well….in the front seat anyway.
My dad had his own particular version of father/son outings. Instead of road trips to campsites or secret fishing holes, we crisscrossed the country attending protest marches and rallies of all sorts. At the time, it wasn’t necessarily my idea of fun, but now I’m grateful for the experiences. By the tender age of 13, I’d witnessed the ’68 Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, so I suppose you could say he taught me his own particular brand of survival skills.
He also made his mark on my formal education. My high school required the 11th grade class to spend a weekend secluded at a remote campsite in the desert. The idea was to teach us strength and self-sufficiency through isolation and deprivation. My dad, always game for bucking the system, agreed to do a secret flyover of our campsite in his friend’s plane. They airdropped gallons of ice cream and a copy of The New York Times for us. I guess we didn’t learn much about self-sufficiency, but we sure loved the sweet taste of subversiveness.
As you all know, my dad was a deeply passionate and fiercely independent person. And, as a committed contrarian, he could really be a handful. I think many of us kids from the Boomer generation were uniquely ill-suited to connect with our Greatest Generation, tough-as-nails, fathers. Jane Fonda, who knows a little something about this, wisely reminded me that “Intimacy was not their gift.” But it was his grit and determination that kept him alive aboard a lifeboat for two weeks after being torpedoed by a German submarine. It kept him from wavering on his artistic or ethical principles, no matter the fallout. Truth be told, he absolutely LOVED the fallout. Who else would have proudly displayed heavily redacted pages of his FBI file on his office walls? Who else, upon learning that his name wasn’t actually on Nixon’s Enemies List would insist, in a most conspiratorial whisper “Marco, there’s another, more secret list.”?
My dad was no fan of people in power, and he generally regarded the entire political system as a construct of “The Man”. When I told him the conversation President Bill Clinton and I had about his work: “Medium Cool?! That’s one of my favorite films!”. Dad quipped, “Well, he’s a very smart guy but I’m still not voting for Hillary!”. Exasperated, I pressed him….”Dad, are there any presidents that you liked or even admired?”. He was silent for a long time, then replied “Maybe Lincoln.”
My dad was a man of varied interests. His work allowed us to live in such far-flung places as Brazil, Greece, and Italy. He was a passionate lover of folk music, a gadget enthusiast, an exercise fanatic, and above all, a complete car nut. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so up on pop culture. In 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, John, Paul, George, and Ringo wanted to rent our house behind the Hollywood Bowl during their stay in town. My parents refused. I’ve always been a huge fan so I’m not sure I can ever forgive them for that. About ten years later, a young filmmaker friend presented him with a script, hoping to get some encouraging feedback. Dad scribbled a note on the front: “George, I’m sorry, but this will never work”. That script was Star Wars. ( But hey, nobody's perfect! )
His public persona was legendary – tough, committed, unyielding. But in truth he was so much more than that. There was a deeply loyal, tender part of him that only those closest to him knew. Though they were long divorced, my dad was immensely supportive of my mom—and of me-- as her health declined. His secretary of 40 years, Leslie Ward, was his trusted right hand. (A hand that knows where all the bodies are buried no doubt!) His niece Judy Gigliotti took such amazing care of him and always held a special place in his heart. It’s a pretty safe bet that if he wasn’t at home, you’d find him a mere two blocks away, comfortably perched at Judy’s kitchen table, enjoying some of Pat’s Italian cooking.
I guess I’ve kind of failed the whole rebellious thing, because I never actually joined the police force, but instead, picked up a camera just like my dad. Maybe some of the friction in our relationship was inevitable considering that in some ways, we are more alike than I ever imagined. I wish I could tell you I reached this conclusion the Hollywood way, on my analyst’s couch, but no, I’m Haskell Wexler’s son so instead, I made a movie about it.
As it turns out, I really made it for an audience of one. I didn’t know that at the time, but as with most things, the truth eventually revealed itself. It blew me away to hear Judd Apatow talking about it on NPR. Apparently he’d watched the film, and been profoundly moved by the footage of my dad viewing the final cut, tearfully proclaiming “You’re a helluva filmmaker” and me breaking down as a result. Apatow said: “You could tell this man had been waiting his entire life to hear his dad say that.” And it’s true. I’m so thankful my dad and I had the chance to connect at that level, and, inevitably I suppose, through film.
My father was always larger than life, and though we sometimes had our differences, neither of us ever doubted the deep love we shared. We were so incredibly lucky to have 60 years together. I’m not sure I am able to imagine life without my dad, so instead of considering him gone, I prefer to think he’s just “On location”.