Sunday, June 17, 2007

TV Fathers Part I – Super-Dad

On Mother's Day I did a tribute/retrospective of TV mothers and so, this being Father's Day, I've come up with a tribute/retrospective of notable TV dads. This process was not without some problems. To begin with I couldn't use the same categories. I don't know how to define a "hot dad" the way I was able to with "hot moms" (that was easy) and I get the feeling – though of course I can't prove it – that there are far fewer examples of the "hot dad" than there are of the "hot mom." And of course, without the "hot dad," there can't be the "hybrid dad" – especially when you see how I've split them up instead. But I have managed to come up with three categories by segregating sitcom dads and dads from dramas. To begin, I give you the "Super-Dad."

The Super-Dad is perfect – the all seeing, all knowing, all wise. If the kids come to him with a problem he most likely sits there for a minute, hands held together in some manner, and, week after week, dispenses some bit of banal wisdom that somehow fits the situation exactly. Before TV the perfect example of Super-Dad was Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movie series.

1. Jim Anderson – Father Knows Best: The prototype of TV's Super-Dad, it is hard to remember that Robert Young's character had actually started out as a father who didn't know best – the title was intended as irony and the radio version ended the title with a question mark – and he only evolved into becoming the perfect '50s dad. Oh he lost his temper – but I can never remember him doing it – and he had a superior partner in his wife Margaret, who would make things right when he got it wrong. I still feel though that as the show went on Jim Anderson became increasingly perfect, and while his kids – Betty aka "Princess" (Elinor Donahue), James Jr. Aka "Bud" (Billy Gray), and Kathy aka "Kitten" (Laurin Chapin) – had their problems they also tended to be a lot closer to perfect than the actual actors (Gray was an alcoholic and Chapin battled heroin addiction). Robert Young, who was part owner of the show with producer Eugene Rodney, wasn't perfect either; he battled depression and alcoholism and attempted suicide in 1991.

2. Ward Cleaver – Leave It To Beaver: Hugh Beaumont played the '50s other Super-Dad and again he was backed up with a support system in the form of his wife June Cleaver. They were firm but gentle parents. Inevitably Ward was the disciplinarian who usually delivered punishments that were measured but on occasion possibly a little more than was deserved (the classic double entendre joke about June saying that Ward may have been a little hard on the Beaver last night stems from this). In real life Hugh Beaumont wrote and directed several episodes of the series. He was an ordained Methodist minister with a Masters in Theology from USC, who became a Christmas tree farmer after he left show business. According to Wally Dowd and Jerry Mathers, Beaumont was even more patient and understanding in real life than the character he played on screen.

3. Steve Douglas – My Three Sons: Strictly speaking of course it was "My Four Sons" although those of us who only saw the show in its later years – after 1965 – or in syndication only saw the last three. Originally Fred MacMurray's sons were Tim Considine as Mike Douglas, Don O'Grady as Robbie Douglas, and Stanley Livingston as Chip Douglas. However Considine left the show in 1965 (he enjoyed racing cars which was forbidden in his contract – he later became a noted automobile historian focussed on racing and has done a number of books on the subject) and Mike was never mentioned again. To keep the number of sons at three, the character of Ernie Thompson, an orphaned friend of Chip's whose foster parents were moving out of the country, was adopted by Steve in a storyline that also introduced William Demarest as Uncle Charlie (replacing William Frawley as Steve's father-in-law Bub). The episodes with Considine were never widely seen after they originally aired (they were in black & white) although they apparently had a run on Nickelodeon in the 1980s. When presented with a problem or some misbehaviour by one of his children Steve would sit in his chair, sometimes give a quizzical look, puff on his pipe, and dispense words of wisdom or admonishment. As time went on the sons aged with three of the four getting married (Mike, when he left the series; Robbie, who added triplets to the household but didn't move out of the house until O'Grady left the show; and Chip who eloped and lived on campus). Widower Steve also got married to Barbara (played by Beverly Garland) adding a stepdaughter to the mix which was an obvious shake-up to the all male household. The series ran until 1972 by which time the dynamic that it portrayed was thoroughly outmoded, although it probably reflected Fred MacMurray's personal conservative politics. MacMurray had enough clout as a major motion picture star that he was able to do his scenes for all the episodes together – he worked about 65 non-consecutive days a year on the show with cast members coming in to work with him as needed. For example all of the scenes for the entire season that had Steve in the hallway of the house would be shot on the same day.

4. Andy Taylor – The Andy Griffith Show: One of the great dads, Sheriff Andy Taylor was a great influence on his only child Opie, played by Ron Howard, with the support of Aunt Bee, and the sometimes dubious help of his cousin and deputy Barney Fife. Unlike some of the other relationships between Super-Dads and their sons, this one felt a lot more genuine. You always got the sense that when Opie had to be punished it really was hurting Andy as much as it did Opie, and that Andy was guiding his son along the right path as well as he could. The show had one of the truly iconic opening sequences which not only told us what the show was called but conveyed the small town atmosphere and the fact that the core relationship was between father and son. Barney and the rest of the town were in the show of course, and the father son relationship wasn't always the featured element but it was the key fixture of the show.

5. Cliff Huxtable – The Cosby Show: I don't think that it is hard to argue that Cliff Huxtable is the last of the Super-Dads. He really was a throwback to characters like Ward Cleaver and Steve Douglas, transported to the 1980s. He was very much an authority figure in his family although his methods and approaches to his children were different than the '50s dads. There was more than a little intimidation in Cliff – "I brought you into this world and I can take you out." He readily pointed out when his kids were wrong and was never one to admit that he was wrong when he was dealing with them (how he dealt with his wife Claire was an entirely different story – he was rarely right). As he showed when it was discovered that Theo was dyslexic, he was not one to accept excuses for poor performance, even when the excuse was largely legitimate. He did encourage his children to strive for excellence.

And one good dad who wasn't exactly a Super-Dad:

Archie Bunker – All In The Family: I expect some argument on this. It is true that Archie wasn't perfect or right all the time. The fact is though that Archie, as portrayed by Carroll O'Connor, was thoroughly devoted to his "little goil" even when he thought she was wrong and her choices were wrong. Chief among these wrong choices was marrying Michael "Meathead" Stivic who in his own way was as disrespectful to her as Archie was to just about anyone. And in the end the fact that Gloria had an affair, and later divorced Mike showed that Archie was right about him being wrong for her. But it wasn't a victory that he took any joy in.

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