Hollywood’s Famous Fathers and Sons — Triumph and Tragedy in the Spotlight’s Glare

donald and kieferFollowing in the footsteps of a successful father is a journey fraught with challenges in any profession, but when Dad’s a movie star, the advantages — and disadvantages — are on a grand and glaring scale.

Colin Hanks has built a highly-enviable career of his own, with FX’s critically-hailed series version of “Fargo” the latest in a string of solid credits that include Broadway (33 Variations), film (“Orange County”) and television (“Dexter,” “Mad Men”). He’s a family man with two young daughters. And yet, he still gets questions about his father, the legendary Tom Hanks, in every interview he does. At least Colin seems to maintain a positive outlook about it — though he does confess at the outset of his career he naively thought those questions would die down after a couple of years.

For others, it’s more serious. Consider Peter Fonda. Every time Peter went on an audition, it seemed, they wondered why he didn’t possess the same natural skill as his dad, the late, great Henry Fonda. Then there were the other actors and directors who resented him, assuming his surname had given Peter an unfair advantage.

His relationship with his dad was hardly picture-perfect. Henry Fonda was far better at acting than he was at being a family man (he married five times), and when Peter became famous in his own right, as a drug-taking, chopper-riding delinquent-cum-counter-culture symbol in “Easy Rider,” his father was none too pleased. “I dig my father,” Peter once said. “I wish he could open his eyes and dig me.”

Kirk Douglas was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s and 1960s (“The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Spartacus”), and his son Michael became both a bankable mega-star and a respected producer. But for the Douglas family, there is a darkness as great as its brilliance.

Eric Douglas had all the advantages of a fine education (Pitzer College, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the London Academy of Dramatic Arts) and his famous father, Kirk opening doors in Hollywood. He worked with Kirk, made movies and TV shows. But he was never as successful as Kirk or brothers Michael, Peter and Joel. Disappointments and a disastrous stint doing standup comedy gave way to a painful 10-year struggle with drug addiction. At one point, Kirk said that he’d taken Eric to 20 rehab centers through the years. It ended with Eric’s 2004 overdose at age 46.

And then there is Cameron. Few who saw it will forget last year’s Emmy show, with Michael Douglas using the platform of his Outstanding Lead Actor win (for “Behind the Candelabra”) to protest his son, Cameron’s treatment in prison. Incarcerated until 2018 on a conviction of heroin possession and conspiracy to distribute narcotics, Cameron had been kept in solitary confinement for two years, said his father. He was reportedly returned to the regular prison population some six months later. Cameron, the veteran of four feature film roles, once appeared to be headed toward an acting career. Michael has publicly blamed himself as an absentee father for Cameron’s failures.

On a happier note, there is the saga of Kiefer Sutherland and his father, Donald. The two have had their ups and downs, certainly. When the “24” star was just two years old, “He ran in circles and hit his head against the wall,” according to Donald. “I told  him to stop, but he said he was just trying to make me laugh.”  It took decades before Kiefer was able to achieve the relationship with his father that he must have craved.

A product of divorce, Kiefer lived with his mom, actress and social activist Shirley Douglas — years when there was an emotional as well as physical distance between him and his dad. After Kiefer’s acting career began taking shape in the 1980’s, father and son reconnected, appeared together in “Max Dugan Returns” and “A Few Good Men” — and became the mutually-admiring duo they appear today.

Last year, they filmed the forthcoming Western, “Forsaken” together as a pair of gunslingers. It’s their first go at jointly toplining a feature, which Kiefer told a British talk show audience is “something I’ve been looking forward to and nervous about for 25 years.”  Keifer said that when his father admitted that he was nervous as well and they could laugh about it, “It really broke the ice for us and it was just a fantastic experience.”

There are father-son performers who make the whole movie whirl look fun. Will Smith and 15-year-old rising son Jaden quickly come to mind. On the set of their 2006 “Pursuit of Happyness,”  Will was “teaching me along the way: This is how the camera works. You do several takes. Like, literally everything you need to know about movies,” Jaden told Vulture.

With two more Smith & Son ventures under their belts since then (“The Karate Kid,” “After Earth”),  Will now treats the 15-year-old like the seasoned veteran he is. Jaden sees himself and his dad working together again. They’re a team, he says, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, or Johnny Depp and Tim Burton.

Another father-sons combination in which fun played a regular role are the Bridges. When they were just kids, Jeff Bridges and his older brother Beau were tutored by their dad, the late Lloyd Bridges, who cast them on his hit TV series “Sea Hunt.” And at home, Lloyd taught them how to “stage fight,” and one of their favorite boyhood pranks was to start a fake brawl in public, attract a big crowd of spectators, then hurry away just before police arrived.

Jeff has made it clear that his father was always a big supporter of his acting ambitions. “He encouraged his kids to go into show business, he loved it so much. He taught me all the basics: how you always play a scene like it was the first time, how to let what the other actor is saying form your response, how to be part of scene and live it. All of it came from him.”

James and Josh Brolin are another example of father and son stars, in which pop has imparted hard-earned wisdom. As the senior Brolin mentioned in a chat last year, he and Josh have talked about the importance of avoiding troubled productions. “I’ve given this advice to Josh, and he’s really heard me now, that what you don’t do is more important at this stage of your career, so choose carefully. He’s done very wisely I believe,” says James proudly.

Show business fathers from Jerry Stiller (Ben’s biggest fan) to Alan Thicke (Robin’s chief booster) seem to enjoy nothing more than boasting about their offspring.

Perhaps no clan of actors has more stories to tell than the family of esteemed former “West Wing” star/political lightning rod Martin Sheen. The actor’s eldest son, Emilio Estevez, was a signature member of the Brat Pack, and went on to a respectable career as both actor (“Men at Work,” “Mighty Ducks”) and indie filmmaker (“The Way”).

“The most significant thing my father has taught me is that my job is no more or less important than someone else’s,” Emilio once declared. “When I realize there are a billion people in China who don’t know I exist, any flightiness is swept away.”  Emilio got some attention in the tabloids back when he married Paula Abdul and again when they split, but of course, nothing can compare to his little brother Charlie Sheen’s decades of booze-soaked, violence-riddled, rehab-studded, porn star and prostitute-loving shenanigans.

Martin Sheen has supported his kids (another son, Ramon, and daughter Renee, are also actors) in their thespian endeavors and their personal lives. The love and heartbreak he feels for Charlie has been out in public for all the world to see. Here’s hoping there’s a happy ending.