Unwed Father (1974) is the best movie you never heard of. It premiered on television way back in 1974 as an ABC Movie of the Week and has never been released on VHS or DVD. Don’t let the made-for-tv tag fool you, this is a quality film with an exceptional cast and crew.
Unwed Father is a story full of heartfelt emotions. The main character, a teenager named Peter, is suddenly presented with a very adult decision. His turmoil is a classic representation of an adolescent on the verge of a crisis. In other words, this is the best type of coming-of-age story. It is one that is fairly open-ended and invites the viewer along for the ride while still creating involvement by leaving certain questions unanswered. It is a modern film in that it takes teenagers seriously and shies away from anything preachy even though this could be interpreted as a message based film.
Peter is a high school Senior who plays soccer and works as a motorcycle mechanic after school. He lives with his adopted mother, a widow, who sits home drinking beer and watching soap operas all day long. He has a chip on his shoulder about never knowing his real parents. Other than that, he is a surprisingly well-adjusted adolescent, both good-looking, athletic and intelligent. While his mother does not offer him money or a fancy home, Peter’s future is still promising with the prospect of college and becoming an engineer.
Peter’s girlfriend is Vicky Simmons. Vicky comes from a wealthy, caring family. Her parents are very open-minded. Vicky wants to be a professional dancer and her parents support her in all her decisions.
After being unsure if she is pregnant or not, Vicky finally decides to break the news to Peter after 3 months. It is too late to get an abortion. She wants to give the baby up for adoption. Peter wants to do the right thing. They try to discuss the situation maturely. But they decide that they are not ready for marriage. Because of Peter’s insecurity over his own adoption, he decides to fight for custody of his child.
(Kay Lenz and Joseph Bottoms as Vicky and Peter)
At first, no one takes Peter seriously. He is ridiculed by his peers, by his school’s administration, by family services and lawyers. When he asks his boss for a full time job, his boss humiliates him. Out of anger and frustration, Peter nearly kills himself driving recklessly on his Kawasaki. He is afraid to ask his mother for help.
Peter’s journey to gain custody becomes not only a mission to become a father, but also one of self-discovery. In order to become an adult, he realizes that the thing he has to put behind him is his own childhood. Even when his mother finally agrees to help, the final decision and its burden rests upon Peter alone.
The second half of the film brims with intensity as Peter struggles to face his future. Many films have been made prior to this on the subject of teenage pregnancy, but none have had the emotional impact and integrity of this lost classic.
I think of this movie akin to the realism portrayed in 1970’s British films such as Ken Loach’s Family Life or even earlier “kitchen sink” films such as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1983) or Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). The film has a 4 act structure. The writer, Carol Sobieski, was also the creator responsible for another unusually realistic made-for-tv movie that has the feel of a serious drama: 1971’s The Neon Ceiling.
Unwed Father, however, is strictly an American view of an angry young man, with a story distinctly set in the 1970’s. This is especially true with the supporting cast. Mr. and Mrs. Simmons, for example, are not easily shocked. When made aware of their daughters pregnancy, they are very cool about. In fact, Mr. Simmons, excellently played by Joseph Campanella, even agrees to help Peter in his mission towards becoming a father. This makes this a very forward-moving and at-the-time contemporary view of sex. Another example of this would be in the ironic view of race as portrayed in this movie. Peter’s boss at the garage is a man who belittles Peter and is appropriated named “Butler”. Sobieski is a clever writer with both a social agenda and a unique outlook.
This was also Carol Evan McKeand’s first credit, as she assisted with the screenplay. McKeand would go on to write several episodes of the TV show Family (1976-1978) whose main character, Willie Lawrence, is also a teenage motorcycle-riding dropout with long, curly blonde hair.
The film was produced by David Wolper, known for his prolific documentary work and innovations with television drama.
Cinematography is by Jules Brenner who worked on many classic films from the 1970‘s such as Johnny Got His Gun and Helter Skelter.
Jeremy Kagan, who directed the movie, has a long list of credits, and made Unwed Father right after completing one of the best entries in ABC’s long line of Afterschool Specials: My Dad Lives In A Downtown Hotel (1973).
Jerry Fielding, a three-time Oscar nominee wrote the haunting song “Sailboats made of Silver” for this production and it plays several times throughout the film.
(Kay Lenz as Vicky Simmons - from the opening of the film)
The film stars a very young Joseph Bottoms and Kay Lenz at the beginning of their long careers as actors. They never looked better and their on screen chemistry is electric. Bottoms is perfectly cast here. He is most well-known for the theatrical film The Dove, which he also starred in. It came out the same year in 1974.
Kay Lenz acted in Unwed Father around the same time that she starred in Clint Eastwood’s Breezy (1973).
Beverly Garland plays Peter's mother.
(Kay Lenz as Vicky Simmons practicing ballet)
And finally, here are are some vintage black and white promotional photos of the film from my personal collection:
(Kay Lenz and Joseph Bottoms as Vicky and Peter)
(Joseph Campanella and Joseph Bottoms as Mr. Simmons and Peter)