Los Angeles (AFP) – Thomas Markle, who has rocked Britain’s royal family with a “will he, won’t he” drama over his attendance at daughter Meghan’s wedding to Prince Harry, is a shy recluse, thrust into the limelight against his wishes.
The 73-year-old initially said he was too unwell and embarrassed to walk his daughter down the aisle on Saturday, according to US celebrity news site TMZ, after allegedly staging photos of himself for money and suffering a heart attack amid the ensuing furor.
The former Hollywood lighting director appeared to change his mind, however, later telling TMZ that he wanted to get the all-clear from doctors to attend the ceremony at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
Markle, known as Tom, has emerged as a central figure in the story of Meghan’s romance with the youngest son of Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
An Emmy-winning TV specialist of Dutch-Irish descent, he is among thousands of expatriates enjoying retired life in Baja California, in northwestern Mexico.
Described as “reclusive,” Markle is a regular patron of the taco shops and grocery stores of Rosarito, his beach resort home just south of the US border, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
But his quiet existence as an unremarkable retiree has been upended by his daughter’s romance and he has found himself unprepared for the onslaught from paparazzi desperate for rare pictures of the shy pensioner.
The 36-year-old bride-to-be remains close with both of her parents, who divorced three decades ago, as she was a six-year-old growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills.
But the relationship with her father hasn’t always been plain sailing.
– Dignified silence –
Around the turn of the century, the future royal was filmed as an aspiring teen actress by childhood friend Ninaki Priddy discussing her relationship with her father.
“We aren’t going to go there,” she says on the video — posted to YouTube last year — as they approach Tom’s Los Angeles home, before adding: “We aren’t on the best of terms.”
There has been a detente in the intervening years, however, with Markle publicly expressing her love for her father in an Instagram message in 2016 and declaring, “Your hugs are still the very best in the whole wide world.”
Markle’s introduction to Hollywood came thanks to her father, who would bring her daily to the set of ABC’s “General Hospital” and Fox sit-com “Married… with Children.”
He reportedly put his daughter through Hollywood’s most exclusive schools and the private Northwestern University in Illinois after winning $750,000 in the state lottery in 1990.
Until recently he maintained a dignified silence, refusing interviews from journalists descending on his tranquil gated oceanfront enclave, where neighbors describe him as “extremely laid back,” the Union-Tribune reported.
– ‘Very unpretentious’ –
“He seems very nice, very unpretentious, it doesn’t matter to him if you’re rich or if you’re poor,” Israel Gonzalez, who owns the taco store next to Markle’s home, told the Union-Tribune.
“Just imagine, that one day he’ll be the father-in-law of the British prince, and he interacts with us.”
There was speculation when the wedding was first announced that Thomas Markle would be left off the guest list after the American star barred estranged half-siblings Tom and Samantha, her father’s children from a previous marriage.
The younger Tom sent Prince Harry a letter to call off the “fake fairytale wedding,” arguing that his half-sister was “obviously not the right woman” for the royal.
Belittling Markle as “a below C average Hollywood actress” playing the part of princess, he accused her of draining their father’s money until he went bankrupt in 2016.
Samantha admitted on Monday it was her idea for her father to take part in the paparazzi shots that made headlines worldwide.
Tom was accused of secretly working with a Los Angeles photographer on several staged shoots, showing him looking at news reports about the wedding, working out and getting fitted for a suit.
Samantha told British chat show Loose Women that she had suggested the photo shoot in order to portray him to the world in a more positive light.
“I have to say I am entirely the culprit,” she said.