Altadena’s Giacomo Knox hopes his father-son reunion idea changes reality TV
By Carl Kozlowski 02/11/2010
Giacomo Knox spent nearly 30 years wondering what happened to his father. His parents separated when he was just 4 years old, and his mother fled with him and his sister all the way from New Jersey to Seattle because, she said, she was afraid of her husband.
Knox only heard of his father sporadically after that, and usually through negative comments from his mother and her side of the family. There was never a stepfather in the picture, although some of his mom’s boyfriends over the years tried and failed to act as surrogate dads for him.
“I was a precocious child and a lot smarter than I should have been at that age,” says Knox, now 40 and a resident of Altadena. “Originally, her brief boyfriends tried but gave up because most men won’t date a woman who has kids, especially two kids. I was immediately rejecting any real attention because they’d set a pattern of leaving anyway.”
Knox was one of the lucky fatherless children to emerge from those experiences as a stable and productive member of society, a factor he attributes to three influences: his “very smart and hardworking” mom, his Christian faith and joining the Marine Corps (“which gave me the self-discipline to accomplish any task God put in front of me”). But even as he rose above his difficult circumstances to launch a career as a stuntman and aspiring screenwriter, he always felt a desire to meet his father again and give him another chance to be part of his life.
That desire inspired Knox to come up with the idea of “A Week with My Father,” a reality series he is shopping to TV stations and networks around the globe — and attracting strong interest from such far-flung places as New Zealand, England, India and Egypt. For the show, he indeed called up his father and flew him out to Los Angeles for a week of bonding activities that helped them both achieve emotional closure, but opened his eyes to problems faced by the estimated 9 percent of American households that are single-parent (and usually mother-only) homes.
“I tracked down my father through one of my cousins on my father’s side of the family,” Knox recalls. “He was the impetus for us getting back in touch because my father had a prostate cancer scare and he was afraid he’d die without getting to know his son or daughter. This was seven years ago. He survived that. My cousin gave me my dad’s phone number and said he wanted me to get in touch with him.
“It was hard. It took me about a year to call because all I’d ever heard were these negative things about him. We never had any discussion about Dad when we were young — usually we got a one-word answer, five-word answer, and I learned not to ask. I got older and she told me [to] get over it, don’t go digging it up, it’s none of your business, really.”
Knox was developing an interest in the reality-TV program format at the same time he was contacting his father and decided to ask him if he’d take part in a father-son reunion reality show. The project would give Knox the financing to actually go meet his dad rather than conversing solely on the phone. At the same time, the meeting would feed the show’s planning needs by serving as a pilot episode for Knox and his producing partner, Julie House of Western Boy Productions.
“We sent him a plane ticket and he came to Los Angeles. It was a great experience, but kind of tough being executive producer and being on the show, so I didn’t sleep for a week,” Knox recalls. “I didn’t know I’d get so emotional after 33 years. He really didn’t get emotional, to be honest, but he really, really wanted to see me after so long.”
Knox’s plan is for each episode to have individual events — hobbies or activities that fathers and sons enjoy doing together. Knox knew his dad had been an amateur boxer, so on the show they went to a boxing gym.
“He and I had that in common, as I’d done martial arts since I was 8,” says Knox. “We also went to a Dodgers game since we were both baseball fans. But the most important thing was sharing stories and emotions over a beer. The meeting itself in many ways was all I expected and in a lot of ways exceeded my expectations.
“My dad really opened up about his regrets not seeing me finishing high school, graduating college, when I became a Marine,” Knox continues. “His family and my mother’s family had no contact whatsoever in the time we were apart, so he never knew I was a Marine and was at Seton Hall University, and was very surprised I had done so much with my life.”
Knox is one of the lucky few who was able to amicably make amends with his father (who survived his bout with cancer), and the two have continued their relationship via Facebook and weekly phone calls, with plans for further visits. But according to Sheila Thornton, a licensed clinical social worker who is site director at the 80-year-old agency Foothill Family Service in Pasadena, the experience Knox had underscores some oft-overlooked truths about the important role of fathers in people’s lives.
“Because of biology, women give birth to children, so there’s more attachment or a special attachment,” says Thornton. “Not having a father not only hugely impacts the child but the family. Children benefit from the nurturing of mother and the father, so it’s a challenge.”
Thornton also points out the financial aspects of a fatherless home — the added stress and difficult realities of a mother trying to raise kids on one income and, if they need a second job to get by, with less time to nurture their children and put food on the table.
“The role of dad is a really important and unique role that is supported by the role of mom, and it really impacts kids throughout their lives,” says Thornton. “That doesn’t mean kids can’t grow up and be successful, but it puts an extra burden on the parent that’s left. I think also when there’s a parent missing in the home, or even if the dad’s there and not present in the child’s life, that kid grows up not knowing the importance of a dad in a child’s life.”
This raises the risk of setting a destructive cycle in which boys whose fathers disappear rarely learn the responsibility of sticking around to raise the children they have later in life. The lack of a father in the home impacts girls as well.
“Dads can be very much present even if they’re not in the home. They have an important role in the kid’s life and we tend to forget about that,” says Thornton. “Dads are so important, and oftentimes we don’t realize that until you grow up.
“It hurts learning how to be a dad if you don’t have a model. We need to identify more opportunities where the dad can be involved in a child’s life,” Thornton continues. “We have a grant with a primary focus on teen pregnancy and prevention, but one of the pieces is a workshop on Fathers Forever, focusing on the important role of a father in a child’s life.”
One other way to help fill the void in a fatherless child’s life is through mentoring programs such as Big Brothers, which recruits volunteers to help at-risk kids, some of whom are not from single-parent homes. The mentors are required to spend a minimum of five hours each month with their mentees — time that can allow a quality relationship without making parents worry that the mentor is attempting to take a parent’s place in the child’s life.
“What a child needs is five role models — positive ones. Research suggests a mentor can be one of those five,” says Ken Martinet, the president/CEO of Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles. “In a perfect situation, you have the father, mother, teacher and two others, like a coach. The children who come from single-parent households need an additional positive role model and that’s where the mentor comes in.”
While the Los Angeles group serves 500 children a year in one-to-one mentoring relationships, they are currently blessed with too many willing volunteers.
“We haven’t had this in my time of almost seven years here, but because of things like the push from the Obama administration we have a waiting list of men waiting to be matched,” says Martinet. “What we now need is the funds to support the matches in creating safe matches and monitoring them.”
Ultimately, Knox was able not only to establish a relationship with his father but also to achieve greater understanding by seeing life through his father’s eyes and contemplating how he would handle similar situations now that he’s a man himself.
“What I got out of it was it gave me the opportunity to let me know who he really was, outside of what my mother’s family had told me. I saw someone who had a lot of pain from not knowing his son,” Knox explains. “I had higher expectations and didn’t want just a meeting for ourselves but to inspire father and sons who had not seen each other to take that step, make the research of where the other might be and get in contact.”
And while he’s swimming the shark-infested waters of Hollywood attempting to sell his series domestically, Knox expresses frustration with seeing junk like “Jersey Shore” scoring huge ratings while noble ventures like “Father” struggle to get a meeting.
But in the end, Knox says he really wants to be a catalyst for more positive reality television.
“I’m certainly encouraged, because I realize the show is much bigger than just getting made and getting a paycheck.
I’m looking to change the perception of fatherhood,” says Knox. “It seemed in the ‘70s, fatherhood became superfluous, saying ‘you don’t need a man to raise kids.’ Now we’ve seen the results of sons who are raised without a consistent father figure around. Our children are raising themselves because they don’t have a good strong male figure to guide them.”