Ward Cleaver’s Club: the Great TV Dads

by Tom Watson
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Ward CleaverTomorrow, I shall take my breakfast under the covers – a twice-yearly occurrence around case Watson (birthday, too!) – and I shall enjoy the mild but heartfelt tribute to my fatherhood. Later, I’ll give my old man a card and a gift, and char a few burgers in his honor. And I will feel well-satisfied at having appeased the greeting card holiday gods for another year.

But the arrival of the joyous Father’s Day season (rough on the orphans or the abandoned amongst us, I must agree) also got me thinking about how the role of “father” is laid out in the cultural scripture of the land. By which I mean television, of course.

So to the wordpress I dashed to throw down a few words: first off, it’s clear that our common idea of how fathers should behave begins with Ward Cleaver and his clan. Secondly, single fathers actively raising the children would seem to greatly outnumber those found in the general population on a percentage basis by a wide margin; indeed, it appears to be the inverse of single moms – of which there are many in the real world, but relatively few in the Shirley Patridge mode.

The single fathers list is huge: Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray), Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) – not to mention the Bachelor Father (John Forsythe) and Eddie’s Father (Bill Bixby). The small town of Mayberry supported two single fathers during its decade-long run on the backlot: Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and Sam Jones (Ken Berry). Single dads have held a wide variety of jobs – the professor to Juliet Mills’ dishy Nanny (Richard Long), a gun-flipping Rifleman (Chuck Connors), a Florida park ranger who befriends a ridiculously smart dolphin named Flipper (Brian Kelly), and a judge (Tony Randall).

There was the big-time executive (Conrad Bain) who adopts a couple of kids from the ghetto on Diff’rent Strokes, the short-lived post M*A*S*H single dad gig form McLean Stevenson on Hello, Larry! , and TV anchor Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) in the long-running Full House. Hell, even Archie Bunker ended his Queens bar-room days as a single father after they killed off Edith. And writers really got ambitious when they doubled the role of single father in My Two Dads (Paul Reiser, Greg Evigan).

So maybe Ward Cleaver and his nuclear family leadership is an outlier? Perhaps TV writers don’t have particularly wonderful family lives? We didn’t have a Cleaver-like upbringing – we were a decade late and a few dollars short. My father didn’t so much hand down platitudes as teach me the twin, intertwined meanings of commitment and hard work.

But let’s get to a list – mine and yours. In honor of my own dad, I’m going to throw out my own favorite television fathers in no particular order – a quick top ten – call them the Ward Cleaver Awards (Beaumont himself is exempt):

Archie Bunker
Andy Griffith
Fred Munster
Cliff Huxtable
Fred Flintsone
Andy Taylor
Tony Soprano
Frank Constanza
Homer Simpson
Rob Petrie

So there’s ten – they’re not, as a group, particularly wonderful fathers (though some were). I’d argue that as a group, they do provide a fairly wide and accurate portrait of how we view American fatherhood.

I have a few more, held in reserve. But I’d like to throw it out there first. Who’s on your list?

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Comments

  • June 17, 2007

    Here I go:
    Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke Show)
    Darren Stevens (Dick York-Bewitched)
    James Evans (Good Times)
    Dan Connor (Roseanne)
    J R Ewing (Dallas)
    Howard Cunningham (Happy Days)
    Rocky Rockford (Rockford Files)
    Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)
    Burt Campbell (Soap)
    Fred Ziffel (Green Acres)

    I’m barbecuing for my Dad tomorrow as well. I never thought about it, but it must be a wide practice.

  • June 17, 2007

    Hey, let’s have a little love for the mighty Hank Hill of “King of the Hill”.

    Oh, but Frank Costanza, definitely. I mean I have actually sat and watched the harmless “King Of Queens” only in the hopes of catching a few seconds of Jerry Stiller brilliance.

  • June 18, 2007

    Mike Brady…

  • Mudge
    June 18, 2007

    Of your list, only Cliff Huxtable and Andy Taylor are true fathers. They spent time in the series actually raising their children. Neither father-child relationship was cutesy. The fathers had serious jobs. I enjoyed their roles as father, unlike the rest, where being a father was more of a foil (or he was a clown) or the offspring were disfunctional.

    Did anyone actually like Richie Petrie?

  • June 19, 2007

    Nobody liked Richie Petrie, it’s true – he was more of a prop – like Little Rickey.

    I’m not so sure about the others – they were real fathers, perhaps not good ones. Certainly, Fred Munster – although undead – was a fine father to Eddie.

  • June 19, 2007

    Richie Petrie’s job was to be heard of but seldom seen, a role-model for TV children more shows should have followed.

    To add to the list of best TV dads:

    John Schneider as Jonathan Kent on Smallville.

    Since the 1970s some of the best fathers have been father-figures rather than actual fathers, surrogate dads to the rest of the cast.

    Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
    Col. Potter on MASH
    Dr Westphall on St Elsewhere, with Aushlander as a surrogate grandfather—Westphall was a good father to his teenage daughter and autistic son but most of his fathering was of Dr Morrison.
    Adam Schiff on Law and Order.

    After 1970 or so, the fathers in TV sitcoms all but disappeared. When they returned in the late 1980s they became the biggest babies on their shows.

    Fathers have been largely absent from TV dramas on the main networks because the main characters are almost always intended to be sex symbols and the shows they’re in focus almost entirely on their heroic work lives.

    There are more fathers on the premium channels and cable networks—WB, now the CB, had a bunch, but they’ve all been canceled now.

  • June 19, 2007

    What’s interesting to me is that Ralph Kramden, although not a father (he wished though, he wished!) was the model for so many sitcom/cartoon dads…

  • August 25, 2007

    Interesting…