From ‘Dukes’ to Being a Better Dad: Fathers.com Q&A with John Schneider

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March, 2012

NCF: We’re especially interested in the fathering story that isn’t central to the movie, but it’s definitely important. October Baby is a tremendous story of a dad in relationship with a daughter.

Could you please tell us a little bit about your family?

John Schneider: My wife and I have four kids – Mandy, Leah, Chasen and Karis – and I’m father to all of them, but I’m Karis’s biological father. So when I married Elly, she had three children, and we immediately became a family because I wanted to be a dad … wanted, wanted, wanted to be a dad. Because I think fathers are so important in this society, and from what I understand a lot of times when you find a problem teen, I mean a real seriously problem teen—jail time teen—you can usually trace it back to an absentee father, or one that’s non-existent at all, one that went away.

So I’ve known that somehow, inherently I’ve known that. I’ve had a great dad, he’s almost 81, he’ll be 81 in June. I talk to him pretty often, although he lives inNew Yorkand I live inCalifornia. So we don’t go play golf every Saturday, although I’d really like that.

I have wonderful memories of both of my grandfathers, so I have a strong memory of the men in the Schneider family. Now my parents were divorced when I was two. So there must have been some troubled time in there, but I was two, so …

NCF: Now, you’re John Schneider III, right? So you have your dad and your grandfather’s name.

JS: I have my dad and grandfather’s name, but we all have different middle names, so technically speaking I’m not John Schneider III. I’m just John Schneider.

And oddly enough, I think the first time I played a father on television was a movie called Night of the Twisters, and from that point on, I became “the dad” on TV, which is really a tremendous honor, because my impression of a dad—and a lot of people’s impression of a father figure was Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazzard. Mine was either Ben Cartwright from Bonanza or Lucas McCain from The Rifleman, or a really terrific show that exhibited the importance of a father-son relationship was The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. That was a great show way back when.

NCF: And you actually were the father of the Superman, right?

JS: Yep, I did Smallville for I guess six of the ten years they did. I did five, and then the last season. That was wonderful because the notion there—at least my notion—was that if you have an alien in your house that has incredible strength and speed and can see through walls and is bulletproof, the difference between him becoming the most awesome force for good on the planet as opposed to the most awesome force for evil on the planet can only be his parents, really. And a huge spotlight was shone on that notion in Smallville. Smallville was a wonderful show.

And then I played Michael Landon in the movie called Michael Landon: The Father I Knew, which was directed by Michael Landon, Jr. So I got to see that family from the inside out and play someone who played fathers more often than not on television as well.

NCF: I understand that Johnny Cash played a pretty significant role in your life.

JS: Yeah, we did a movie called Stagecoach together a long, long time ago. I was on the road, doing a lot of country music at that time, and he invited me to come live at his house in the spare room and then later in the little spare house they had across the way. So yeah, it was a great time because it wasn’t based on guitars or music, it was just two guys that were really great friends. We’d fish together … I’m a Civil War buff, so we’d look at his Civil War button collection. Just a really terrific time.

And Johnny was the first, and still one of only a handful of men that you would say were Christian men that were still men. You didn’t prance around and talk about how wonderful and lovely everything was. You know? He was a real guy. Those are the kinds of people I like to play, and because of Johnny Cash, I like to think anyway, that that’s the kind of guy I am—a real dad with rough hands who can fix something if it’s broken, or at least try. Kind of a go-to guy in the family. “Dad can fix it. Or, well, maybe not, but Dad’ll give it his best shot. He at least knows where the toolbox is.”

NCF: When you got the script for October Baby and read through it, what was your initial thought or what pulled you to the point that you said, “This is something I want to be involved in?”

JS: The notion that when a daughter doesn’t really understand, she has no concept of what her parents went through, what her dad has been going through since she was born. She doesn’t realize she was adopted at the beginning of it. So there’s a disconnect there that I was really attracted to because of the way, when she finds out that she was not only adopted but that she is the survivor of a failed abortion, the relationship changed right there.

And I have two daughters and it was so realistic because once she understood that, she got mad at us. She got mad at her father, which doesn’t make adult sense, but it makes perfect teenager sense. So a lot of times I’ll read a script and people will write scripts about what they think teenagers are like because they have a two-year-old, and they couldn’t be more inaccurate. This script really, really depicts, to me, as a father of three girls and one boy, this script really depicts to me what the psyche and maturity level of a 16-year-old girl really is.

NCF: So you really related to the situation they were in, almost like “This is how it is in our house.”

JS: Well, not so much to the circumstances of the situation, but to the disconnect between parents and a teenage girl. I play a lot of golf, I’ve done a lot of things, and I honestly have found nothing as frustrating in life than that period of time when your teenager daughter thinks you’re an idiot. And it happens! It just happens, and I don’t know why. It’s a frustrating time, and this script really, really, from that point on in the script—and it’s only about ten pages in when that happens—it had me. It’s just wonderful.

And of course I’d heard terrific things about the Erwin brothers fromShari, the girl that plays the girl who had the failed abortion. We had just done a movie together, and she said, “Oh, I understand you’re going to go work with Andy and Jon; they’re just terrific. So I was anxious to meet them, and she was right; they’re wonderful. I think they are truly gifted, both in their directing skills and certainly their writing skills, and further their cinematography is unbelievable.

NCF: It really was a well-put-together film.

JS: It’s all moving! All of it. You can pick that movie up anywhere and because of the way they weave the music in and out and just their collective eye and their sense of timing cinematically, it’s wonderful. It’ll catch you wherever you happen to start watching the movie. And I’m assuming that’s why Sony has grabbed hold of it and they’re running with it. So that’s really good news; that doesn’t happen.

NCF: The character you play, the father in this film, has his own journey through the film. Describe his journey and maybe what you saw as some of the mistakes he made and some of the things he did right and some of the things he learned through this journey that’s portrayed in the film.

JS: Well, my guy, he did a very right thing when his wife and he lost their twins, miscarried their twins, when his wife came to him and said, “There are twins up for adoption that would have been born around the same time our twins would have been born.” Obviously he supported that and they went and adopted these two little babies even though one of them was horrifically disfigured and not likely to make it out of the hospital—and the other one had health issues as well. So this is a guy who supported his wife’s desire to have twins, he supported her faith that there was a reason why she was made aware of these twins. So, he did that right.

The only thing as far as I can see … there’s a wonderful line of dialogue in there where the daughter says, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And basically, without saying this exact line, he said that, “I was always going to, but life kind of got away from us. We were working and …” he was at that point trying to become a doctor, he was going to school, and they had financial trouble, and it just kind of got away from him. It didn’t slip his mind, but the perfect time to have that conversation never really appeared. So he had to do it under duress. He had to do it in a doctor’s office when she was wondering why she was always so sick. So if he did anything wrong, that was it. Because he’s very protective of his daughter with her friend….

I love that about the movie too—the platonic, wonderful, buddy relationship between my daughter and her pal in his movie is so real. And as a movie-goer, you think, Okay these two have got to get together somehow. But it just is so wonderfully real. So my character, the dad in this movie, does a great job, I think, of protecting her against a teenage boy’s stupidity [laughs] … his judgment, from an eighteen-year-old boy’s perspective.

And I’ve said this to my kids many times. I haven’t said it recently, but … “One of the biggest differences between me and you is that I’ve been seventeen, and you have not been fifty. So your perspective is very narrow, very short. It is your perspective, and I’m not going to discount it, but my job as a dad is … if I’ve sat on a stove that you’re about to hike your butt up onto, my responsibility is to let you know it’s hot. I’m not going to keep you from sitting on it, but I’m going to let you know that it’s going to hurt when you do.” I think there’s that in this film as well, and I like that.

As far as what he learns, I think he learns in this movie that the resiliency of a seventeen-year-old girl is more than he thought, that a young person can actually handle more emotional information, more potentially hurtful information than you think they can. So there’s that wonderful scene where he tells her the whole thing about her brother, and it’s so moving. He’s a dad, and it pains fathers when their children go through that “Dad is an idiot” stage. It really pains them. It’s not just confusing, it’s hurtful. But the good news, dad, is that it does have a shelf life. They do love their dads through all that stuff too, they just don’t let you know it. But later on they do. I used to tell friends of mine, “Don’t worry. They turn back into people just as magically as they turned into aliens.”

NCF: In just about one day, all of a sudden they’re a new person.

JS: And there’s an interesting dynamic I’m noticing now after having three of them in college, and our youngest is a senior in high school and is about to go. But it also seems like teenagers … children love their mom and dad. It’s like teenagers have to be close to one at a time. That’s a weird thing. But for the people who are reading or listening to this, that too will pass. So know that when little Bobby or little Sally is siding with Mom, that for no apparent reason they’ll start siding with Dad, and Mom will be the enemy. But don’t ever expect, unless they want something really expensive, for them to appear to love you both at the same time. [laughs]

NCF: What do you think a dad can learn from watching your character in the film?

JS: I think he can learn to listen to his wife, especially if you’re the father of a daughter. Just like if you’re the fathers of a son, I think the mother should listen to the dad, because the dad has been a sixteen, seventeen, eighteen-year-old boy. And no woman ever has, just as no father has ever been a sixteen, seventeen, eighteen-year-old girl. It’s like apples and refrigerators; they’re that different. So rather than doggedly plowing on through your perspective and your take on how your daughter should react in a specific situation, whatever it is, there’s a mandate to seek wise counsel.

And in that situation, seeking wise counsel is asking your wife, “What in the world is going on, and what can I do?” And my guy in the movie doesn’t really do that. He comes really close, and that’s part of the conflict and part of the drama in the movie. He comes really close, but it’s really apparent that the wife knows things because she’s got a little smirk or a little smile here and you can tell that she knows that dear old Dad just doesn’t get it. [laughs] And we have to accept that. We don’t get it, we won’t get it, we can’t get it, but our wives can help us through it. And maybe our mothers. Ask Mom. Ask Grandma.

Everybody likes to say that kids are so different today, but really I don’t think they are. There are more temptations and more cell phones and all that kind of stuff that has changed the dynamic a bit, but I think inside we’re all people who want be respected and want to be admired and want to matter. And if we can let our kids know that they matter, I think we’re way ahead of the game. And I think that worked a hundred years ago, and fifty years ago, and it’ll work tomorrow.

NCF: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your own life as a dad? I imagine that at times your schedule can be very demanding, and having kids at different stages at life, you having to be on the road … One of the questions we get so often from so many dads is, “How do you balance career and work? From your perspective, how have you seen that work and not work and what are some of the things you’ve done to try and put that balance into your career and home life?

JS: When I was doing Smallville, I commuted back and forth to Vancouver from L.A. And it was before and then after 9/11, so it became a horrific weekly and sometimes twice-a-week trip, especially with it being in another country. I wanted to, and I’m not sure yet with the youngest one whether or not this is the impression that I gave, but my desire was, I didn’t want to be a guest in my house. I wanted my kids to know that I kept coming back so that I could just hang out with them and be a dad at home. And I believe it worked with our son and our 26-year-old; they have that impression that Dad is somebody that went away to work, but that he lived here, you know. He was here. It’s really tough.

I, at one point, in an effort to make sure I was home so I could see our youngest run track on the weekends, I even bought a plane. So I had great intentions, but it just ate my lunch; financially it was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. But I had noble intentions. My intentions were to be there on Saturday because on Alaska Airlines I would miss the track meet.

So if you’re a dad who travels a lot, you have to make sure that your kids know you can’t wait to come home, that you really would rather be home but you are traveling because you are providing for your family. I think that is a lesson that they will tuck away and you won’t see it for ten or fifteen years, but it’ll pop up again.

NCF: I think one of the greatest compliments we get as dads is when our kids, on the positive things, emulate what we did as dads.

JS: And in the aspect of a daughter, a very tiny little story is with Leah, who’s twenty-seven. I used to open the door for Leah all the time. And it was cute when she was little, and then when she got to be about fourteen, it drove her crazy that I would open the door of the car. “Dad stop that. You know I don’t like that.” And I said, “Well, I can’t help it. It’s how I was raised, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.” And I said, “One day you’ll understand.” “No, I would never, I would never…” And I’m a very lucky guy; she’s only had two boyfriends in her whole life, and she’s had her current boyfriend for almost two years now. And the first thing she said to me when I found out she was falling in love with someone. She said, “I have to tell you something, Dad.” And I said, “What?” And she said, “He opens the door for me, and I like it.” [laughs] What a wonderful thing! It made my life! So, it took more than ten years for me to hear that, but it was worth every second of waiting for it.

So, just make sure your kids know that you love them, even when they don’t love you, and don’t get in their space, don’t get in their face, and don’t try to bully your way into their lives. You’re in their lives, you just don’t appear to be for a while.

And try to be a good example. Simple things like when you see trash, pick it up and throw it in the trashcan. They see that; they notice that.

NCF: Model what you want your kids to do …

JS: Yeah, because you’re going to screw up; they’re going to see bad stuff in you. We all do bad things. But you really honestly have very little control over that habitual behavior; it’s just kind of in there. But there are things you can do intentionally. You can open doors for people, you can be polite, you can apologize. It’s a wonderful thing for a child to hear their father apologize to someone for something, or even better, apologize to them. I’ve apologized to my kids for stupid things I’ve done for as long as I can remember—and not right away, because I’m pretty stupid. But I will come to them a couple of days or even a month later and say, “You know, when I did that thing, I was wrong and I’m sorry.” And there’s power in that. 

NCF: You mentioned something about setting an example or modeling something. Have there been other men that you’ve admired for their fathering, or maybe you saw as, “Wow, I would love to strive to be a father like that?” Or is there someone in your life or have there been men in your life that you’ve admired their fathering, and why?”

JS: Yeah, well, Johnny Cash was a great dad. My dad is a terrific dad. My grandpa on both sides; both my grandfathers were. But … Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse, was a wonderful father figure to me because he would spend time. He would make time to hang out with his adult boys, which is important.

I play golf with a buddy of mine who was a stuntman on Dukes, and until his dad passed away about six months ago, they played golf every Saturday. And at first I was thinking, Wow, that’s really great. I admire Jack for playing golf with his dad all these years. And then I realized, Wait a minute. No, I admire Sandy; I admire Jack’s dad for having raised a son who would want to. Actually, two sons. Both his sons wanted to. And that’s where the rubber meets the road, to grab a Dukes of Hazzard phrase—when your parents, when your dad is in his eighties and you’re still hanging out with him and there’s really nobody you’d rather hang out with. Now that’s a wonderful father-son relationship.  

NCF: What do you think is the single most important thing you can do as a dad for your kids? What would it be?

JS: Listen. That’s the single most important thing. Listen to them. That goes back to … if you aren’t listening to them, then they don’t matter; they’re inconsequential. So, listen.

NCF: What do you see as maybe one of the most common mistakes that most fathers make today? You obviously interact with a lot of dads, a lot of people. What do you see as maybe one of the most common mistakes dads make today?

JS: Well, I make it too. The older you get, the more you want to just cut to the chase. You perceive that you have this vast perspective on life that’s all-knowing or at least 75%-knowing perspective on life, and you just want to help your child or bully your child into getting it right, right now. So because you’re in a hurry, there’s a tendency—I have this tendency and I’ve seen it in other dads—to want to force your kids to be like you are, now, rather than like you were then. You know what I mean?

Don’t try to force a 40-year-old or a 50-year-old perspective of space and time on a 15-year-old. It doesn’t work. I don’t know what the math is, but a year for a 15-year-old and a year for a 50-year-old … a 50-year-old’s year goes by in about a week. A 15-year-old’s year goes by in about two years. If you remember how long you thought you were in high school, your whole high school experience … Even at 50, if you look back and think, Wow, high school, I did this, I did this, I did this … It seems like high school was a long time. But if you look back to something you did four years ago, when you were 46, it seems honestly like maybe a month and a half ago. I don’t know why in the world that is.

But if you then put those two different perspectives of the passage of time onto some sort of emotional issue, at 50 years old you can get through an emotional issue in minutes, where a teenager will take months. Don’t try to enforce your time frame on a teenager. It’s got to be some sort of emotional trigonometry. [laughs]

NCF: You probably have a very unique perspective on life, having been part of a very fast-paced, in the limelight, a successful film career, TV career, music career as well. In your life, what evidence do you see that our culture needs to acknowledge the need for good fathers? And then, what evidence do you see that our culture needs to help men be more effective in their fathering roles?

JS: Well, if you go to a juvenile hall or to a prison, I think the number one reason young people are in there is because nobody … It’s very rare to have somebody say, “Well, my mom was never at home.” Or, “Well, my mom was a jerk.” Or, “My mom was in prison, and now I’m in prison.” It seems to be the influence that the dad has on the children that causes them to go wrong. So there’s a lot of evidence there.

And then you get into the Lindsay Lohans of the world, and you get into … we were talking about the Kardashian girls here the other night. I mean, they don’t do anything, they’re famous and their parents are basically pimping them out. And now they’re pimping out the grandbabies. And so what’s that going to end up being? That’s a time bomb. It’s got to be. There’s no way it’s not. It’s hard to find an example where you say, “See these are wonderful people because they had wonderful parents.”

The very first time that the Jonas Brothers sang in front of a television camera was on my telethon, the Children’s Miracle Network. And I remember them and their parents just being wonderful, delightful people, even though they’re “show people.” “There’s no people like show people.” But I don’t believe any of them have been arrested for mainlining heroin or anything, so there has to be something said for the importance of good parenting in that troop. And like I said, it’s hard in a celebrity area to come up with examples.

If I played sports I’m sure that you could find a lot of folks who excelled in sports because their dad was there with them and was throwing the football in the yard and was throwing the baseball and playing golf and all that kind of stuff. But I’m not in that area; I’m not in that realm. But I bet you’d find a lot more of it there than you find in the acting world.

John Carter Cash is a great kid, and Conway Twitty had great kids. There’s a lot of folks out there. “Shooter”Jenningsalways knew that Waylon and Jessi loved him. He’s out there making great music. I’m sure he’s got some of his dad’s demons as well, but Shooter never had to wonder whether or not he was loved.

NCF: Being a stepdad yourself, what advice would you want to give, as lessons learned in your own life, to some of the stepdads that are out there?

JS: It’s funny. Only when I’m in an interview do I ever even say anything like, “I’m the biological father of one of them,” because they’re all my kids. So I think the most important thing I can say is to never make any … I don’t think guys make a designation. I don’t think they feel any difference. I don’t feel any difference between my 17-year-old that I helped birth with a midwife than I do to my 27-year-old who was eight when I met her or my 29-year-old who was 21 when I met her. I hope they don’t feel any difference when I am communicating with them.

So I would say that: make no designation between your kids and your stepkids. I have a stepmother, and I don’t call her my stepmother because I think it’s a little insulting to make that designation. “This is my son.” “This is my daughter.” “This is my mom.” Because, again, that makes it so they know they matter. Now, they may not want to be …

My 27-year-old, her dad passed away in a motorcycle accident when she was little. So when the notion … I adopted Chasen, who’s Elly’s son, and was almost one when I met him. I adopted him. But when I talked to Leah about adopting her—I guess she was maybe ten years old—she very lovingly said she didn’t want to do that because she felt it might be … not an insult, but she didn’t want to do that to her dad who had passed away. And that was great. It was a wonderful conversation. But I don’t say, “This is my stepdaughter.” Leah’s my daughter. Maybe having had that conversation made us more father and daughter than had we not.

NCF: When you read the script for October Baby and you learned that it was a pro-life film, what were your initial thoughts? Is that something that immediately attracted you to the film, or what were your thoughts on that?

JS: Well, probably had I known it was a pro-life film I might not even have read it as quickly, because generally speaking they’re preachy and kind of saccharin, at least they were in the past. Independent scripts and faith-based independent scripts are getting much better. I read it because I’d heard about these guys and heard that they were great filmmakers. They didn’t say, “Here, I want you to read a pro-life script.” Because I would have thought, Oh my gosh. Here’s another one of these; it’s going to be 130 pages long; it’s going to have dialogue everywhere; it’s just going to be awful.

But they said, “Here are these guys who have won a bunch of awards for videos. Why don’t you read the script and see what you think?” And I read it, and I was hooked. It was great. Because in the movie, you don’t know that it’s about abortion or failed abortion or pro-life or pro-choice. You have no idea what it’s about other than a relationship in a normally dysfunctional family until you get more than halfway through it. It’s very clever.

NCF: You mentioned that you had a great relationship with your dad. In what ways do you see your own fathering and the way you father your kids as something that you learned from your dad? Or maybe there were differences between your fathering and the way you were raised.

JS: Well, I saw my dad on the weekends, so there’s a huge time difference right there. But when I did see him, I learned things about how to fix things, how to hammer nails—I used to hammer nails with my dad and my grandpa. I learned how to have family outings, and there were three boys, so he managed to give equal time to all three of us. So, I think, to listen and also to apologize.

When Dukes of Hazzard had happened, I was inNew York doing a movie and so I was only at this time like nineteen. And I remember at dinner my dad saying that it’s a good thing I never took any of his advice, or I wouldn’t have been experiencing my dream. So that changed the relationship. And I was so young, I really don’t remember, other than learning how to cook a steak and learning how to fix a car and stuff like that. So I think the apologizing lesson which we talked about earlier as so important, was something I learned from him, but not until I was nineteen.

NCF: So what’s next for John Schneider? What’s on the horizon for you?

JS: Well, I’ve got a bunch of scripts that I wrote that keep trying to see the light of day. I’ve got one about hospice called “Backwater” that was funded and then the funding went away, and I’m trying to get that funded again. So what I really want to do is make some independent films that are very thought-provoking and different and surprising. They’ll be surprising. No warm and fuzzy stuff in my writing brain, apparently. [laughs] Strange stuff comes out when you write. You find out what’s really going on in there when you write a screenplay. So that’s my main focus. But honestly, that’s been my main focus for a long, long time, and it’s a just hard one to get. But I’m not going to give up on it.

I thought it would happen honestly almost thirty years ago. I wrote and directed the last episode of Dukes, and I’m still trying to write and direct my own films. When it happens, of course it’ll be an overnight success. It’ll look like, “Oh, the guy from Dukes of Hazzard wrote and directed his own movies.” But it didn’t happen just like that. [laughs]

NCF: It’s a tough business, isn’t it?

JS: Well, yeah, but business is tough. You’re trying to get a pretty valuable gold ring, and whether you want to be a successful lawyer or you want to be the chief of police, I mean it’s all hard. If it wasn’t hard then it wouldn’t be worth the struggle.

NCF: In conclusion, is there anything that you would want to say to the fathers that we work with—kind of some last words to the dads?

JS: Just hang in there, dad. Hang in there. Your experiences, your perspective, it’s all valuable and one of these days someone in your household will let you know that. Maybe not today. [laughs] But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow. Just hang in there. You’re worth it.