For Dallas-born actor Owen Wilson, his new movie No Escape marks an emotional turning point.
Now 46, Wilson is the father of two boys, ages 4½ and 1½, who bring an unbridled joy at a time when his own father, longtime Dallas executive Robert A. “Bob” Wilson, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Playing a father desperately trying to keep his family safe in a dangerous land stirred memories of his own father’s protectiveness, which in turn helped define his performance.
“It is a rough thing,” Wilson says, opening up publicly about his dad’s illness for the first time.
“It’s one of those things where if somebody had said 10 years ago, when my dad and I were joking around, having a putting match, that this is the position your dad’s going to be in, where he basically needs 24-hour care, you’d think, ‘Gosh, I won’t be able to handle that. That’s just not possible.’
“But it does happen. Such things just happen in life,” says the actor, who grew up in Preston Hollow and attended St. Mark’s School of Texas. “You just have to do your best to deal with it. You’ve got no choice but to accept it. And then, you sort of still look for the things to be grateful for. He is at home, taken care of, and he has people around that love him.
“For me and my brothers, there just wasn’t a bigger influence on us. Maybe it sounds trite or something, but I really believe that his spirit gets carried on through me, the way I like to joke around.”
The actor’s winning smile and guileless charm have accelerated box-office gold in comedies such as Wedding Crashers; his theater-set comedy She’s Funny That Way opens Friday. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris relied extensively on Wilson’s comedic touch but also suggested he might have deeper characters in his repertoire.
No Escape, which opens nationwide on Wednesday, introduces the moviegoing world to a new Owen Wilson. It’s an edge-of-your-seat action adventure, a thriller about an Austin businessman unwittingly transporting his wife and two young daughters into an Asian country whose government is being toppled in a coup.
He says he never could have played the father in No Escape without first becoming a father himself. He also appreciated the role for letting him feel closer to his own dad and helping him understand, for the first time, the anxiety his father felt when he and his brothers were young.
“It’s about a father trying to protect his kids and doing everything he can. That was very relatable, something I could imagine. Obviously, we never had anything like that,” he says, alluding to the terroristic mayhem of No Escape, but he understands the fear he saw etched on his father’s face when he or one of his brothers fell out of a tree or got lost at the State Fair.
“There’s a lot of stress inherent in being a parent,” Wilson says. “And worrying about your children and wanting them to be OK. When they’re born, you feel this love you’ve never felt before. If they were in danger, you’d just do anything that you could to help them.”
"Raising three boys was a challenge"
Now 74, Bob Wilson took charge of Dallas’ then-flagging public television affiliate, KERA (Channel 13), in 1967. He hired Jim Lehrer from the Dallas Times Herald and put him in charge of public affairs programming. That led to the creation of the highly acclaimed local news program, Newsroom, with Lehrer as host. Newsroom became the forerunner of a national staple, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
In a 2004 interview with The News, he recalled with a smile something he heard Owen say on David Letterman’s show.
“Letterman said, ‘Three boys. That must have been hard on your parents.’ Owen said it was ‘three, seven, nine, zero.’ Three boys, seven high schools, nine colleges, zero degrees. So that isn’t exactly success,” the Wilson patriarch said with a laugh. “There were trying times. Raising three boys was a challenge.”
And yet, by any standard, the Wilson sons have been extraordinarily successful. Andrew, Owen’s older brother, who turns 51 on Saturday, and Luke, the youngest at 43, have piled up their own list of acting credits. Luke is currently in Vancouver, Owen says, making a movie with Cameron Crowe. Luke has yet to have kids; Andrew has three.
Bob’s wife and the mother of the Wilson brothers is acclaimed photographer Laura Wilson. Her new book, That Day: Pictures in the American West, dovetails with an exhibition of her photographs opening Sept. 5 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.
Laura Wilson says her boys cherish thoughts of their father’s gift for making memorable conversation and his devotion as a dad.
Andrew Wilson remembers playing a soccer game, an “away” match in the snow of Vermont, only to look up and see his dad on the sideline. “I hope I do as good a job of being a father as he did,” he said in a 1999 interview with The News. “That’s something I think about a lot. He was so supportive. He came to every single game we were in.”
In the same interview, Owen Wilson recalled waiting eagerly for his father’s reaction to a scene from Rushmore, which Owen co-wrote with college roommate Wes Anderson. In it, Bill Murray’s character says: “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine having sons like this.”
After the movie, Owen cornered his dad to ask what he thought. “You realize, don’t you, Dad, that I took that from you word for word.”
Talent, hard work
Mike Ritchey, one of the star reporters on Newsroom, has known the Wilson family since 1970, when Owen was a toddler. He’s Luke’s godfather.
“Bobby Wilson is one of the brightest, funniest, most ironic people that I’ve ever known,” Ritchey says. “You can see that in all his boys.”
“These boys grew up in a household that really appreciated brains and talent and hard work. And that didn’t have to be in the arts. Bobby and Laura felt and feel that way about any endeavor. Anything you undertake requires a talent, a style. They believe strongly in style and above-board, stand-tall behavior. They’re a very strong family.”
The Wilsons included their children in gatherings at the home with such esteemed friends as Ritchey, Lehrer, photographer Richard Avedon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough and National Book Award winner Tom Wolfe.
His dad’s illness, Owen Wilson says, has reminded him of the value of friends and how grateful he and his family are for Dallas’ “sense of community.”
“You really see that when you have to deal with some bad luck, like what’s happened with my dad,” he says. “People have supported my mother and done stuff and that’s so valuable. The great thing about feeling you’re a part of a community is how it sustains you.”
Wilson splits time these days between homes in Maui and Los Angeles. But he loves returning to Dallas, where his past included a stint as a waiter at S&D Oyster Company on McKinney Avenue. He loves seeing buddies from bygone days and spending time in “the house I grew up in.” And yes, he still roots for the Cowboys.
He says his parents’ loving, supportive nature encouraged him and his brothers to pursue an unconventional path and that “growing up, being exposed to their friends and how they valued creativity” helped define the men they became.
“It really was,” he says, “a great place to grow up.”