From Leading Man to Someone's Old Man
Six years ago, Gerard Butler became in international sex symbol as the scarred, shirtless leader of the Spartan forces in "300." Two years later, at 39, he was on the Tom Bosley track, playing a father for the first time in "Nim's Island." Now, he's a retired soccer hero trying to be present for his 10-year-old son in "Playing for Keeps," to be released Dec. 7.
How an actor navigates the voyage—from Fred MacMurray noiring it up in "Double Indemnity" to donning a cardigan for "My Three Sons"—can be a crucial career test. Some manage it better than others.
"I'm not saying it's something that doesn't go through your mind. For instance, I wouldn't want to take on the role, right now, of having a 20-year-old kid," says Mr. Butler. "But the role itself is what wins through—does the movie interest you? And you've got to let that overpower other kinds of fears, and your vanities about that."
George Clooney in "The Descendants," Brad Pitt in "Moneyball" and Will Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness" have the talent and clout to put dear-old-dad roles on their resumes without worrying about having to play them endlessly. Others struggle to return from raising movie kids. Eddie Murphy received an Oscar nod for playing a debauched singer in 2006's "Dreamgirls," but he played the dad three years later in "Imagine That," and Dennis Quaid has taken several father roles after 1998's "The Parent Trap," including one alongside Mr. Butler in "Playing for Keeps."
"Often it seems to be a permanent transition," says Noel Brown, British author of "The Hollywood Family Film: A History from Shirley Temple to Harry Potter" (2012). "It's quite difficult to reclaim that general leading-man persona."
In "Playing for Keeps," Mr. Butler's George Dryer is a dad who must keep out of trouble (of the lady-killing variety) to prove himself responsible to his beloved ex-wife (Jessica Biel). With his thick Scottish accent and hunky stubble, Mr. Butler's shaggy-haired retired sports star relates to his son (Noah Lomax) by calling him "champ" and "kiddo," transforming his soccer team into winners and letting him drive a Ferrari. "There has to be a subtle change in where you are," says Mr. Butler, who was estranged from his own father in real life, "but I think I just stepped into it and dealt with it."
Whether an actor can return to leading-manhood after a daddy detour depends on several factors. One, of course, is star power. "If anything, women find sexy men playing caring fathers to be incredibly appealing," says Ilene Starger, a veteran casting director who worked with Mr. Quaid on "The Parent Trap." "And I'm sure it appeals to male moviegoers. Wouldn't you want to sit in an audience and think, 'Oh, I'm a cool dad like Brad Pitt or George Clooney?' "
Adds Richard Walter, a film and TV professor at the University of California, Los Angeles: "It depends on the actor. Robin Williams is never, ever going to come back and play a romantic lead. George Clooney, when he's 153 years old, is going to play a romantic lead."
One good plan is to play a widower. In the coming "This Is 40," where writer/director Judd Apatow's once-teen world is largely populated by anxious parents and children, the characters of Paul Rudd and Robert Smigel discuss how nothing slays women like being a single dad, mourning sensitively and in need of comfort. "The polar opposite of divorced guys," says Mr. Smigel.
Another factor is generational. The anti-heroes from the '60s to the '80s—Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis—could scarcely be bothered with sniveling little kids, unless they were rarely-seen props to make the heroes look more sinister (as in "The Shining") or heroic (as in "Die Hard"). But "Moneyball" and "Descendants" show a movie star's more tender and complex side.
The coming indie "In Our Nature," for example, has John Slattery essentially reprising his "Mad Men" role as the distant, witty Roger Sterling—only his relationship with his adult son allows him to add shades of vulnerability and self-analysis.
And in last month's "For Ellen," rising star Paul Dano, 28, plays a narcissistic, "Easy Rider"-style anti-hero rocker who gets to spend a tender two hours with the young daughter he left behind.
"The good thing about working with a kid is you have to, in some ways, care for them, so if you're crossing the street, you have to make sure they get across the street safely," Mr. Dano says. "So it naturally takes you to another place."
Acting Your Age
How five actors made the switch from loincloth to cardigan sweater:
'Father of the Bride' (1950)
Mr. Tracy transformed himself from a tough yet sensitive hero into a bemused father for this comedy, then spent the rest of his career toggling between leading-men roles ("Judgment at Nuremberg") and stern dads ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"). By contrast, Steve Martin fell comfortably into dad roles with "Parenthood," then the 1991 "Father" remake and its sequel. "He moved completely away from that anarchic comedic persona he had earlier in his career to this conservative family patriarch," says author Noel Brown.
'Mr. Mom' (1983)
Mr. Keaton overcame the father stigma to star in "Beetlejuice," "Clean and Sober" and "Batman." "Time catches up with you, and the camera is a painful thing," says Stan Dragoti, who directed "Mr. Mom" and is still working on indie films at age 80. "But men like Keaton or Clooney, they can go anywhere they want."
Mr. Simmons wasn't exactly a leading man, but he was so pitch-perfect as Ellen Page's dad that the veteran character actor moved into that rarefied dad-o-sphere of Harry Dean Stanton in "Pretty in Pink." Two years later, he played Paul Rudd's father in "I Love You, Man." "It was interesting how quickly my fatherhood progressed from having a 15-or-16-year-old to having a 30-year-old in the space of about one year," Mr. Simmons says. "I'm just a bald white guy."
'The Parent Trap' (1998)
Mr. Quaid was the first actor cast for this remake, as the divorced father to twin Lindsey Lohans. "I was on the fence about it," he said in a 2003 interview with about.com. "A woman in my life said, 'You must do it.' I'm glad I did it because I'm king of the carpool line now." Mr. Quaid would play a dad in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" and the upcoming "Playing for Keeps," although he does other roles, too. "Dennis is one of those actors like Jeff Bridges," says casting director Ilene Starger. "They're incredibly handsome, and total leading men, but at heart they're character actors."
'The Descendants' (2011)
Mr. Clooney had played a dad before, in movies such as "One Fine Day," just as Brad Pitt had been a father in "Legends of the Fall" before "Moneyball" and "The Tree of Life." But the later roles best defined them as dads. Mr. Dano says of Mr. Clooney: "You get to see more parts of him, and people are surprised when you feel that. I don't think it's a sign of age, or change of direction in a career. It's just maybe a different piece of him."