Who: Atticus Finch, pa to Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s 1960 quasi-autobiographical novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and then later played by Gregory Peck in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film of the same name. Here is Peck delivering the lesson from which the book’s title comes:
Why: My none-too-subtle hint that I would be writing about the greatest American novel on Father’s Day probably didn’t escape many notices. Alabama town attorney Atticus Finch would have been one of the all-time literary characters if he had only unsuccessfully defended accused rapist Tom Robinson from a whites-only justice system. But as important and compelling as that subplot is, it’s his relationship with his daughter Jean Louise that is the most riveting element of the book and movie. He calls her “Scout,” and in a baseball-bat swing at Southern decorum, she calls him “Atticus.” The character is impossible to perceive as anything other than Gregory Peck, playing an educated version of his other great literary Southern dad character from the 1948 adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Viewed through that lens, Atticus is the dad every American wants to have—our original ones excepted, of course.
Impact: Harper Lee’s publish-and-vanish approach, already perfected by J.D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison, put her on the list of America’s most enigmatic novelists. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer, and she never wrote anything again. (She’s still alive. She has time.) Gregory Peck won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Atticus, his only win of his five tries. Atticus became the ultimate American attorney, inspiring, among many others, our modern Mr. Finch, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And of course, on one day a year, Atticus leads every list like this one.
Personal Connection: Is there such thing as a literary clicker-killer? For me, it’s this book. If I’m stuck looking for something to re-read on my shelf, it’s often this one I pick up. It’s certainly the novel I’ve read the most times, by far. Thirty times, maybe? It’s tough to tell, because I’m probably counting the thirty times I’ve seen the movie in there too. One thing is certain: There will never be any words better at bringing me to tears than the reverend’s admonition to Scout, “Stand up, your father’s passing.” Yeah, I just got you too, I bet. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Other Contenders: King Lear, who makes a teeny-tiny misjudgment about which of his three daughters loves him best; Sean Connery’s Henry Jones, Sr., the foil we never knew Indy needed; Finding Nemo‘s Marlin, swimming with Albert Brooks’ nervous energy; elderly Albert Finney and youthful Ewan McGregor as Will’s tall tale-telling father in Big Fish; Robert De Niro’s Dwight, who invites Leonardo DiCaprio’s Tobias Wolff to shut his goddamn piehole in This Boy’s Life; FOX’s all-time idiot sitcom dad—no, not this guy, but Bryan Cranston’s brick-thick Hal from Malcolm in the Middle.