Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fathers’ Day – The Single Dad

Not sure if I'll have two posts this Father's day. For one thing I'm a little stymied for ideas and for another, we're doing something with my brother (since he's a father) and I don't know how much time I'll have.

The single father might seem like a non sequitur, but it was a very popular genre in the 1950s and '60s, less so as time went by. The reason why the father was single changed over the years. Usually it was because the wife died, or in a couple of cases because both parents died and a "swinging" bachelor found himself tied down with one (or more) kids in their bachelor pad. More recently Dad is single because he and mom got divorced. In the one current example of the genre Two And A Half Men, Dad has weekends with his son.

The "single dad" genre has certain immutable aspects. "Dad" is usually in over his depth, exploring an unexplored country and trying to cope as well as possible. As a result he needs help, usually in the form of a permanent "caregiver." Sometimes that means a servant, sometimes it meant a family member. That lets dad go off to work (and on dates) leaving the kid or kids at home. It's just about evenly split between the caregiver being a man or a woman. Both have comedic possibilities. In Two And A Half Men things get even more complicated because the two adults are so unable to cope with the "half man" that they need a housekeeper to pitch in. So let's take a look at some examples of "The Single Dad."

Bentley Gregg – Bachelor Father: I'm not sure if Bentley Gregg was the first single father but he was one of the most memorable, even if I've never seen the series. Played by John Forsythe, who as we shall see made something of a career of playing single fathers, Bentley was a successful – and single – Hollywood attorney who became responsible for his 13 year-old niece Kelley when her parents were killed in a car accident. Bentley's was a previously all male household, consisting of himself, his houseboy Peter Tong, and his dog Jasper. The series focused on Bentley's efforts to come to grips with being a parent as well as the problems that Kelley faced as an adolescent – or at least an adolescent in a 1950s sitcom. Inevitably many of the episodes centered on Bentley's romantic life and Kelley's frequent efforts to find her uncle a wife. The show ran for two years on CBS (where it alternated with The Jack Benny Program) two years on NBC, and one year on ABC. By the time that the series was cancelled by ABC the central premise of the show had been largely run out. Kelly was in college and was engaged to marry Warren Dawson, a junior partner in Uncle Bentley's law firm. (I have to say sounds a little creepy – in the ABC season Kelly was a college freshman which is what 18 or 19 years old, and here she is engaged to a man who has completed law school and already made partner in a successful law firm. How old was that guy??) Interesting bit of trivia – in the episode "A Crush on Bentley," one of Kelley's friends develops a major crush on Uncle Bentley. She's played by Linda Evans who twenty years later would play John Forsythe's wife in Dynasty.

Steve Douglas – My Three Sons: If Bentley Gregg was one of the earliest single fathers, Steve Douglas was one of the iconic figures (along with Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show). Steve was raising three sons after the death of his wife with the help of a male relative. While most people think of the sons as being Robbie, Chip and Ernie, with the male relative being Uncle Charlie, the original characters were Mike, Robbie and Chip and their maternal grandfather Bub. The show debuted on ABC in 1960 with William Frawley as Bub and Tim Considine as eldest son Mike. However Frawley's age became a factor and eventually the production was unable to get insurance for him. He was eventually written off of the show (he moved to Ireland) and was replaced by his brother Charley O'Casey. At roughly the same time Tim Considine left the show after a dispute with producer Don Fedderson – Considine wanted to direct rather than act and he was also an auto racing enthusiast who was contractually forbidden from racing while he was on the show. His character got married in the first CBS episode of the show (the program changed network when CBS refused to pay to shoot the show in colour – because the Considine episodes weren't in colour they weren't offered in syndication) and Mike moved to "the Chuck Zone" – he was never seen again and only mentioned once or twice in the last seven years of the show's run. To keep the name of the show relevant a new third son was added – Ernie. Ernie was an orphan who was adopted by widower Steve (with Uncle Charlie being legally designated as the "house mother") after his foster parents were sent to Asia by the State Department. Over time the show evolved. They left Bryant Park New York and moved to California. Robbie got married, finished college and became a father himself (of triplet sons). Eventually Robbie left the show while his wife and son remained. Chip went to college and eloped. The biggest change of all was when Steve himself got married, adding both a wife and a young step-daughter to the previously all-male household.

Michael Endicott – To Rome with Love: I'm not really sure why this show has stuck with me. This was the third of producer Don Fedderson's three "single father" series (the other two were My Three Sons and Family Affair) and probably the least successful since it only ran for two years. I suppose it was most likely the location, although I gather that most of the show was shot in Los Angeles. John Forsythe (again) played Michael Endicott, an Iowa professor who took a job at Rome's American Overseas School after his wife died, and took along his three daughters, Allison, Penny and "Pokey". The element of culture shock was added to the difficulties that Michael, as a single parent, faces in raising three daughters on his own. The role of "caregiver" is filled by two different characters. In the first season you have Michael's unmarried sister, the girl's Aunt Harriet, who wants her brother to give up this silly idea of living in Rome and move back to Iowa where it's safe (meaning that there aren't so many foreigners around and they have all the American modern conveniences). Aunt Harriet seems to have dropped out part way through the first season. In the second season she was replaced by three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan, playing Michael's father-in-law Andy Pruitt, who had sold his farm and was planning to move into a retirement community but came to Rome instead, and never left. The second season of the show also featured a couple of crossover episodes with Fedderson's other two "single father" series, My Three Sons and Family Affair, although neither Steve Douglas nor Bill Davis (the fathers in the other two series) made an appearance.

Edward Stratton III – Silver Spoons: Silver Spoons mixes a couple of ideas together. Edward Stratton (played by Joel Higgins) is a man who is totally unaware that he has a son until young Ricky Stratton (Ricky Schroeder) shows up on his door. Edward was married – for just one week – and his ex-wife never told him that she had a child. So when Ricky's mother sends him off to military school after getting remarried (she thinks the boy will be "in the way") he decides to get to know his father instead. Edward is an irresponsible man, who is more interested in playing with his toys (including a miniature train that runs through the middle of his house) than he is in being an adult or in running his toy company. This means that there is a bit of a role reversal thing going on in the series with Ricky being more mature in most ways than his father. Edward thinks that his son should lighten up and be more of a kid. The caregiver role in this series is less pronounced than in others but it is present in the form of Edward's business advisor (and increasingly romantic interest) Kate Summers (played by Erin Gray). Edward and Kate get married in the third season of the show which basically ends the "single father" aspect of the show but it's still the part of the show that is most remembered. Of course, being an '80s sitcom there are a number of "very special episodes" although not as many as some of the show's contemporaries (at times it seemed like every episode of Blossom – also a "single father" series – was labelled a "very special episode").

Michael Taylor and Joey Harris – My Two Dads: The situation in My Two Dads is probably the most unusual ever in a sitcom ever. Teenager Nicole Bradford's mother dies in an accident and she is sent to live with her father. There's just one minor problem – Nicole's mother wasn't exactly sure of who the father was. It apparently came down to one of two guys (although there was at least enough of hint before the show was cancelled to get some fans to speculate that it was neither). One was Joey (Greg Evigan) who was a wild artistic type. The other was his former best friend Michael Taylor (Paul Reiser), an uptight financial advisor. The implication of course is that Nicole was the child of a single mother who (not to mince around with terminology) slept around enough that she wasn't sure of who her kid's father was. Imagine what the PTC would think of that premise. Needless to say the completely different personalities of the two potential fathers were the comedic meat of the show, making it the equivalent of The Odd Couple with a kid. The guys were pretty much their own support system, but they were frequently looked in on by their landlady – who was also the judge who had assigned custody of Nicole to both of them – Judge Margaret W. Wilbur (played by Florence Stanley). As for the actual paternity, Nicole had a DNA test done but supposedly destroyed the results, although Margaret apparently found them and knew the actual answer but threw it away. Look for Giovanni Ribisi as one of the two boys who want to be Nicole's boyfriend (the other is Chad Allen).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed. Really a nice post here!

Proud to be a Single Dad