We’ve all seen that cliche image from times past – a father, back relaxed in an easy chair, legs propped up on a footrest. Perhaps he’s wearing a robe, smoking a pipe, and even wearing slippers. Or at the very least maybe the family dog is bringing the slippers or paper to him.
I don’t want to talk about those guys.
I want to talk about a few other fictional fathers of the screen that aren’t that stereotype of 1950s America so often thought of when reflecting on old TV shows of the past. I want to talk about a few fellas who, whether the present or the past, have, for the most part (they all have off days or an idea that’s a bit out of touch now and then, but we’ll forgive them) are solid foundations of fatherhood, and examples that those of us living outside the screen can look to for a little inspiration and example as to what it means to not just be a father, but to be a dad.
Judge James Hardy
Putting aside the one initial appearance of Lionel Barrymore, Judge James Hardy is most commonly known as being depicted by actor Lewis Stone in the plethora of films within the Andy Hardy series from MGM Studios throughout the 1930s and 40s. With themes of themes of honor, integrity, courage in the face of scandal, and maturity, the sixteen films revolving around the Hardy Family were an idealized vision of what America could be, if everyone treated each other the right way and stood by a core set of values and honor.
While the films over time took their focus to young Andy Hardy, at the center of those themes and values was James Hardy – father, husband, member of the community, and never too busy for his family. While some onscreen fathers of the time were distant, driven by work, no time for distraction, Judge Hardy always had the time to recognize how crucial wife Emily was to the family and he, to lend an ear to son Andy or daughter Marion, and took the time to listen to their troubles and emotions. Often referred to as ‘man-to-man talks,’ James rarely ordered his children around, instead offering the guidance and wisdom that allowed them to come to their own revelations and decisions of character, that laid the foundation for good, honest people of the next generation.
(Sadly, hard as I try, I couldn’t find a classic Hardy ‘man-to-man’ talk online to post)
Good-natured, goofy, but absolutely neurotic, Rob Petrie, played by Dick Van Dyke in the aptly titled The Dick Van Dyke Show, seemed to have a dream life, despite the sitcom hijinks. A loving wife who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and difference of opinion, a son with many questions for the ever-worrying dad, and a dream job as a comedy writer for the sketch comedy show – The Alan Brady Show. Rob had a good heart, even if he did trip over himself at times in trying to be the good dad and husband he wanted to be, and it made he, and the entire Petrie family, all the more human.
The Dick Van Dyke Show, still today, ranks among one of the best sitcoms of all time. 50 years later. And it’s just as enjoyable for audiences. Whereas some shows of decades past feel dated, out of touch, it’s never the case with the Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob, Laura, Richie, or any of the characters. Because the brilliant Carl Reiner (who created the show) was making a show about real people. And though times may change, human emotions do not. It’s because of that brilliant writing that Rob is just as great an example of a person, co-worker, husband, and father today that he was five decades ago.
A farmer from Kansas traveling with his wife when they find a baby, abandoned in a field. Oh, and that baby’s inside a spaceship that obviously just fell from outer space.
Jonathan and Martha Kent had no idea what that baby was or what he would become. But they knew, before them, stood a child with no one other than they to help him make this planet his home. Saving him from the government containment, dissection, or weaponization that could possibly follow upon finding an alien, the Kents, salt of the Earth, good, virtuous people, decided to take this baby into their home and their lives, and raise him as their own.
When little Clark Kent grew up, the Kents had no idea who or what he would be or represent. But they knew they had the task to raise a good boy, who cared about others, and one who, as he started to show special talents and gifts beyond those of mortal men, would use those powers to help the world, to save lives, to be a beacon of hope.
That spaceship could have landed anywhere on Earth. And who knows what type of person baby Kal-El of the planet Krypton would have grown up to be? Fortunately for humanity in the pages of comics, novels, cartoons, television, and films, he landed in a corn field and was found by the Kents, whose salt of the Earth personalities, and lives of good morality laid the foundation for the hard-working, virtuous, optimistic, and all-around good person Superman is today. (in most interpretations lately. I hear it varies in recent years)
So he may not be anyone’s top pick, and that’s okay. He wasn’t necessarily mine either. However, there was something about the way Daniel Tiger’s dad, seen multiple days a week on PBS Kids Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, quietly, gently handles fatherhood. At times he may seem like a figure that fades into the surroundings, but it could easily be because he and Mrs Tiger are such equal partners.
Sometimes he’s silly, sometimes he’s childlike, rolling around on the floor or crawling through pillow and sheet tunnels with Daniel, understanding and experiencing first-hand what it’s like to be a child alongside Daniel and baby Margaret.
And he works in a clock factory that’s shaped like a giant grandfather clock. Tell me you wouldn’t want to show up to work at a building that looked like that everyday.
There’s a bit of him, and the entire show that for those of us old enough to remember, hearkens back to the soft-spoken, big-hearted, watch-wearing tiger cat on Mr Roger’s Neighborhood that inspired this entirely new generation of lessons in what it means to be a good person.
The Man in the Yellow Hat
It takes a lot of patience to be a father-figure to a precocious monkey. But somehow, The Man in the Yellow Hat seems to have the endless patience I can only wish for. Whether it’s a trashed apartment, a lost portfolio, or a stampede of pumpkins causing chaos and scattering crowds in a small town, there’s usually a monkey with the curiosity of a preschooler behind it, and the understanding Man in the Yellow Hat to explain it without losing his top.
While preschoolers can see the world through the relatable eyes of George and his wonder of the world, the level of fear, over-protection, and sheer joy with every uttered “oh boy” or “be a good little monkey” is the parental heart of the series for us grown ups and makes the Man in the Yellow Hat a source of joy, wonder, guidance and learning, and fun for George that I hope we could all be for our own kids.
Of course, this list is by no means conclusive. Merely a sampling of some of my own favorites of fictional dads that I think help set the bar.
What about you? What on-screen dad examples have you ever looked at with a feeling of inspiration?