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Mark Felt, best known as the 1970s Watergate scandal whistleblower “Deep Throat,” played a series of roles in his daughter Joan’s life.

As a little girl, she knew him as a warm, loving daddy. When she was teenager, as her dad rose in the ranks of the FBI, he became more secretive, preoccupied and withdrawn. In her rebellious post-college years, Joan believed her father’s job made him part of the oppressive Establishment.

After Felt came to live with his daughter at her Santa Rosa home in 1992, and even after several later strokes, he was the kind and gentle man that Joan had always believed he was at heart.

Felt lived quietly here until he finally revealed his secret in a Vanity Fair article in 2005. He died of congestive heart failure in Santa Rosa in 2008 at age 95.

Today, the very private man’s story goes public once again when the new movie “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” starring Liam Neeson as Felt, premieres in New York and Los Angeles.

Chatting comfortably in the sunny kitchen of her west Santa Rosa home, Joan Felt seems like nothing more than the quiet, modest, 73-year-old college teacher she is, but like her famous father, she has another side.

As his daughter, she is also a witness to the life of a central figure in one of the most notorious political scandals in American history.

Moved to weep

Father and daughter passed countless hours talking at the same kitchen table where she spent a recent morning sharing memories of her dad’s public and private life, and her impression of the new film, created by writer and director Peter Landesman with her candid cooperation.

“Liam Neeson and Peter Landesman portrayed my dad so well that it gave me an insight into his depth of character that I hadn’t had before I went to Atlanta to watch the movie being filmed,” she said. “I got to watch the scene where my dad is in the courtroom, being accused of illegal break-ins and wiretapping of the Weather Underground and I watched him perform for 30 seconds, and I started weeping from the core of my being. I never knew what he was up against.”

Joan Felt was born in Washington, D.C. Her father was transferred more than a dozen times during her youth to cities all over the country, before he and his family returned to the capital city, where he eventually rose to second-in-command at the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

After Hoover’s death, the Nixon administration pressured the FBI to close its investigation of the break-in at the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, leading to a cover-up and ensuing scandal that eventually ended in President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Blocked from continuing his investigation by the administration, and passed over as Hoover’s successor, a job he had long been groomed for, Felt leaked information on the crime and cover-up to Bob Woodward at the Washington Post and Sandy Smith at Time magazine. Felt’s stated aim at the time was to protect the FBI’s traditional independence from the White House.

Estranged in the ’70s

Portrayed in the film by Maika Monroe, Joan Felt plays a major role in the film even though she doesn’t appear until late in the movie, as a rebellious daughter exploring the counterculture and seeking to find herself in the 1970s.

Even as Felt struggled to expose corruption in the Nixon administration, he used the power of the FBI to search for Joan, who had dropped out of sight and disappeared into a commune in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

Felt feared — mistakenly, Joan said — that his daughter had fallen in with the Weather Underground, also known as the Weathermen, a militant left-wing group under investigation for a series of bombings.

The movie makes it clear that it was friction with her alcoholic mother Audrey, played by Diane Lane in the film, that drove Joan away from home. Audrey Felt committed suicide in 1984, which was not revealed until the publication of Felt’s biography, “A G-Man’s Life,” co-written with John O’Connor. The book served as the basis for the film’s screenplay.

Mark Felt was indicted and convicted in 1980 for illegal break-ins and wiretaps committed by the FBI during its Weather Underground investigation.

He was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan the following year.

“This movie helped me get inside my dad’s world back then,” she said.

“When I was 30, the age I am in the movie, I had written off the FBI and the government. I just thought everybody had sold out. In the movie, I saw my dad in the context in which he was living, instead of the context I was living in. I could appreciate his incredible strength of character, his nobility and the fact that he was dealing with danger and people he couldn’t trust.”

Felt was played by Hal Halbrook as a shadowy, mysterious figure in “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 film based on the book by Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In the new film “Mark Felt,” Liam Neeson — silver-haired and reserved like Felt — is the protagonist. A dignified and religious man, Felt disliked the nickname “Deep Throat,” taken from the title of an infamous ‘70s porn film.

The secret slips out

During the years between Felt’s retirement, speculation about the true identity of “Deep Throat” never flagged.

“Every year on the anniversary of Watergate, we’d get calls from reporters all over the world,” Joan Felt said. “Dad always denied that he was Deep Throat, and I believed him.”

Even as Felt tried to protect his family and his privacy, struggling in his later years with Alzheimer’s disease, he sometimes inadvertently betrayed at least a hint at the true story, Joan said.

“We would watch documentaries about Watergate and ‘All the President’s Men,’ and I would say, ‘Dad what do you think was motivating Deep Throat?’ and he would say, ‘He just wanted the American people to know the truth.’

“Another time, I said, ‘Dad, do you realize Deep Throat actually brought Nixon down?’ and he said, ‘I wasn’t trying to bring him down. I was just trying to do my job.’”

After the secret was revealed in Vanity Fair, Felt faced a sudden flood of attention, but he was frail by then and kept his distance from the furor.

“I got home from work the day it came out, and there were thousands of reporters and photographers, with trucks full of TV equipment for three blocks out,” Joan said. She has taught Spanish at Santa Rosa Junior College since 1989, and also taught at Sonoma State University from 1991 to 2010. Reaction to the revelation that Mark Felt was Deep Throat was mixed, with some callers accusing Mark Felt of treason. “But that was the minority,” she said.

Eerie parallels to today

The film opens Oct. 6 in the Bay Area and Oct. 13 at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa. The film opens Oct. 20 at the Rialto in Sebastopol, with an appearance by O’Connor, co-author of “A G-Man’s Life.”

Joan Felt does have one quibble with the film’s portrayal of her dad.

“I pleaded with Peter Landesman not to portray my father as a smoker. He wasn’t. He quit smoking before I was born. He was capable of great discipline, once he made up his mind,” she said.

Overall, the Felt family, including Joan’s three grown sons, supports the film.

“This movie will educate the younger generation about him,” Joan Felt said.

The timing of the film’s release after years in development seems significant, with the current Trump administration under investigation by a special prosecutor, and the firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Donald Trump earlier this year.

“It’s uncanny,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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