John Heard’s death on July 21st dredged up the role that he was, of course, most known for: “the dad from Home Alone” a.k.a. Peter McCallister, the sort of all-American, out of it patriarch that’s daffy enough to not realize his son didn’t get on a plane with him to New York. But still, he’s dependable, means well and has a boss camel-tone trench coat that helps him get lost in a crowd. In fact, this literal and metaphorical beigeness describes Heard’s life in the acting world to a tee. In short, he was the interchangeable national Daddy of the U.S. as it stood in the 90s.
Look closer, however, and it’s easy to see John Heard was much more than that. His background as a theater actor landed him accolades for performances in the likes of Othello during the late 70s and translated well to his first leading role in Chilly Scenes of Winter–renamed from Head Over Heels upon its re-release in 1982 to correlate with the Ann Beattie novel it’s based on. Though the film wasn’t necessarily acclaimed, The New York Times review of it conceded that “there’s not a false performance in the film.” Heard, naturally, was a primary part of that praise. And, yet, somehow, he could never seem to parlay his way to permanent leading man status. 1988’s Big starring Tom Hanks was perhaps the closest he got to another major movie without being totally relegated to the background, which, in spite of its iconicness, was what the role of Peter McCallister was. Even in more sinister films, like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Heard was pegged as the dependable guy archetype, the person you can count on for comfort in a crisis.
Despite the often limited screen time he was given, Heard was consistently able to make himself stand out with his acting talent, as was the case with his appearance on The Sopranos as tortured detective Vin Makazian, which ultimately garnered him an Emmy nomination–though in true bittersweet form with regard to his career, not a win.
Something of an undercover ladies’ man, Heard was married to the wispy Margot Kidder for only six days in 1979, and had a child with Melissa Leo, who he had many legal troubles with over the years–from being arrested for slapping her to trespassing on her home. In many ways, there was something cinematically tragic about all the misses in Heard’s life, both personal and professional, he himself admitting, “I think I could have done more with my career than I did, and I sort of got sidetracked. But that’s OK, that’s all right, that’s the way it is. No sour grapes. I mean, I don’t have any regrets. Except that I could have played some bigger parts.” So yes, Peter McCallister, the man you wanted so badly to be your father in the face of his obvious neglectfulness, was far more complex than most viewers were capable of giving him credit for with the minimal screen time he was allotted.