Top TV Dads

Photo Credit: Leave It to Beaver: Courtesy of King Features Syndicate

Beloved By All, These Popular Pops Helped Raise Generations
By Matt Roush, ReMIND Magazine

Sometimes they know best. Other times, you wonder how they could be so clueless. Whether comforter or bumbler, curmudgeon or confidant, where would we — who were raised on television — be without our TV dads?

Since the medium’s infancy, viewers have leaned on our father figures for guidance and support in comedies, dramas, even Westerns. In one of the most famous instances, the long-running sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, America watched a real-life family play an ever-so-slightly fictionalized version of themselves from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s.

Ozzie Nelson was the unflappable dad, unfailingly good-humored as he and beatific Harriet raised two boys who grew up right before our eyes from adolescents to young adults — and in the case of Ricky Nelson, into a pop idol who eclipsed his famous parents in enduring stardom.

The Nelsons’ all-American family was the template for the wholesome sitcoms of the era, symbolized by Father Knows Best. Robert Young (the future Marcus Welby, M.D.) starred as insurance agent Jim Anderson, who with loving wife Margaret (Jane Wyatt) managed an idealized household, doling out sage advice to his “Princess” Betty (Elinor Donahue), his namesake James Jr. or “Bud” (Billy Gray), and his “Kitten” Kathy (Lauren Chapin) through their growing pains.

These wise, but rarely wisecracking, dads were anchors of calm as the 1950s bridged the more turbulent 1960s — none more so than even-keeled Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) of Leave It to Beaver, who always had a gentle life lesson for the mischievous Beav (Jerry Mathers) and his older brother Wally (Tony Dow).

Things got a little more excitable in the swank New York home of Danny Williams, a nightclub entertainer played by the brash Danny Thomas on Make Room for Daddy, later The Danny Thomas Show. Juggling career and fatherhood, Danny spoke loud but was a softie when it came to little Rusty (Rusty Hamer) and Terry (Sherry Jackson).

These are the TV dads we often think of when harking back to so-called family values.

Frontier Fathers
But the tradition goes back even further, to the frontier of the 1800s on the long-running Western Bonanza (1959-73). Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) made his homestead on the Nevada range of the Ponderosa ranch with sons Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon) — each born to a different late mother (the Wild West wasn’t friendly to wives and mothers at the time). A patriarch for the ages, Ben ruled with an iron but fair fist.

Landon, propelled to superstardom as Little Joe, graduated to fatherhood a year after Bonanza ended by becoming Laura Ingalls’ (Melissa Gilbert) tireless “Pa” (Charles Ingalls) on Little House on the Prairie, set in late 19th-century Minnesota. Landon not only starred, but also wrote, directed and produced the series, putting his personal stamp on this most iconic of pioneer pops.

1960s’ Most Revered
When rural comedies became the rage in the 1960s, no TV dad was more revered than Sheriff Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show. With wry wit and seemingly infinite patience, he kept the peace in bucolic Mayberry and never lost his cool with adoring son Opie (Ron Howard) or childish Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), and somehow managed to stay refreshingly clear of back-country caricature.

Meanwhile, the suburban status quo was well represented in the ’60s on My Three Sons. Fred MacMurray played Steve Douglas, an affable aviation engineer raising Mike (Tim Considine), Robbie (former Mickey Mouse Club member Don Grady) and Chip (Stanley Livingston) — and later adopting Ernie (Barry Livingston, Stanley’s actual brother) after Mike got married and left. Father and son were each other’s “Best Friend” (the catchy title tune) on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, with impish Eddie (Brandon Cruz) forever playing matchmaker for his widowed publisher dad, Tom Corbett (Bill Bixby).

Lucky Dick Van Dyke, as Rob Petrie on the self-titled The Dick Van Dyke Show, had a gorgeous wife at home (Mary Tyler Moore in her star-making role as Laura) in New Rochelle, and when he wasn’t writing comedy for the dyspeptic Alan Brady (Carl Reiner), he helped care for little Ritchie (Larry Mathews). Though prone to slapstick, Van Dyke was Joe Normal compared to the outrageous dads from two macabre comedies that aired from 1964-66: The Munsters‘ monstrously naive Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne), who could never understand why people were terrified by his Frankenstein visage; and the suave but decidedly weird Gomez Addams (John Astin) of the ooky and kooky The Addams Family, who never much cared what anyone thought.

Realistic Dads Ruled The ’70s
In the 1970s, you could take your pick of the two most realistic dads ever to surface on TV: John Walton (Ralph Waite) of The Waltons, who held together a large family during the Depression years with calm forbearance and tolerance for all, and his polar opposite, the beleaguered Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking All in the Family. Everyone who saw Archie knew someone like him — cantankerous, spewing polarizing nonsense in impotent rage against a changing society — but we’d never seen his like on TV, and certainly not with such insight into a complicated character. You could hate what came out of his mouth, but there was no doubting his love for adult daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers).

Diversity was key to the Lear comedy factory, which produced such disparate dads as James Evans (John Amos) of Good Times, set in the Chicago projects; tightly wound George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) of The Jeffersons; and blustery Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx), the flip side of Archie, in the hit Sanford and Son, long before The Cosby Show revived the sitcom genre in the 1980s.

Those wishing for simpler times got their wish when Happy Days brought the 1950s back with Mr. C, a.k.a. the avuncular Howard Cunningham (Tom Bosley), always beaming benignly at the antics of Richie (Ron Howard, grown up since his Opie days) and the Fonz (Henry Winkler). And while the blended family of The Brady Bunch was set in the present, their squeaky-clean demeanor was for the ages, and Robert Reed as Mike Brady was as dependable and square (and square-jawed) as they come.

Contemporary Dads Flourished In The ’80s
The all-knowing father got a more contemporary polish with home-office psychiatrist Jason Seaver (Alan Thicke) on Growing Pains, who like so many TV dads of so many eras was upstaged by a teen heartthrob (Kirk Cameron as Mike). But it’s the adults who were the hunks when “TGIF” became a family brand in the 1980s, thanks to the frenetic three-men-and-a-bunch-of-kids vibe of Full House — later revived in a “next generation” format on Netflix as Fuller House — where Bob Saget as widowed Danny Tanner was joined by studly John Stamos as Uncle Jesse and Dave Coulier as class clown Joey. Full House set off a string of so-called “babysitter comedies” that included Family Matters, where Reginald VelJohnson ruled the roost as Chicago cop Carl Winslow.

Soon, a more flawed variety of dads was on display, including the put-upon born loser Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) of Married With Children. This irreverent and controversial sitcom helped launch the upstart FOX network in the late 1980s, which soon after introduced the most enduring nincompoop of all time, Homer Simpson of The Simpsons. A D’oh-ting dad, when he isn’t trying to throttle bratty Bart, Homer is a lovably silly man-child — not unlike his more caustic FOX counterpart, Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin.

And Then Came The ’90s
The most popular live-action dad of the ’90s, Tim Allen’s Tim Taylor of Home Improvement belied his TV “Mr. Fix-It” image by creating messy havoc amid his house of boys. His mock-macho shtick, still winning fans on the current Last Man Standing, would have fit right in with Frasier‘s grouchy retired cop dad Marty Crane (John Mahoney), a working-class soul who somehow ended up with two of the fussiest metrosexual sons ever, Frasier (Cheers vet Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce).

Modern Dads Of The New Century
The new century has been dominated by a Modern Family — that of the extended Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clans in a sophisticated mock-documentary free-for-all that won the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for each of its first five seasons. This acclaimed series, which recently ended an 11-year run, burst forth a cornucopia of dads, from gruff patriarch Jay (Married‘s O’Neill) to the adoptive gay couple Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) to endearing doofus Phil (Ty Burrell).

Modern Family reminds us that it takes all kinds, and the taciturn Mike Heck (Neil Flynn) of The Middle, the self-involved Ray Barone (Ray Romano) of Everybody Loves Raymond, and the obsessive Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson) of black-ish continued to find new angles on fatherhood through a time of rapid change.

But there may not be any TV dad who can live up to the standard set by Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), the doomed hero of today’s hit drama This Is Us, who perished saving his family (and dog) in a home fire and who continues to loom large over his now-adult children’s lives in vivid, poignant flashbacks. The best TV dads are among our most unforgettable characters — but it’s probably best not to tell Mom.

Matt Roush, “TV Guide Magazine’s” senior critic, is a nationally respected television journalist. He has served on the jury for the American Film Institute’s annual AFI Awards, selecting the best TV shows of the year. He has also served on the nominating committee for the Broadcast Television Journalists Association’s Critics’ Choice Awards.

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