In modern television culture, most dads didn’t always know best. Maybe they thought they did, but quickly the tables turned and dads were treading water at best. If you are Homer Simpson, you’re underwater.
Dad might have been hip in his day, although those were the olden days of covered wagons and walking to school uphill in the snow. In the modern world, dad was usually a square wheel.
My favorite family sitcom was Leave it to Beaver. Ward Cleaver was a bright, successful guy, but his experience and advice generally didn’t impress Wally and the Beaver. Ward was often right, but the boys usually had to learn it on their own. When it came to modern fashion or hairstyle, the boys went with the trend or followed the cue of their friends, with disastrous results. Steady, supportive Ward was there, not to rub it in, but to help his boys make a graceful recovery. Ward often reflected on his own childhood and his less than understanding father.
Most TV dads that followed were in over their heads dealing with teenagers or precocious kids. Dad was supposed to be the comic foil to the kids.
There were a few exceptions, Andy Griffith exemplified a great dad who acknowledged his mistakes, Gidget’s dad was cool and later, and Cliff Huxtable would define modern dads for a generation. Bill Bixby in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father played a father very focused on his son, they had great conversations together, a nurturing dad like Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie. All single dads then were widowers, who usually needed an Aunt Bea or a Mrs. Livingston to help with the household and occasionally help the dad with his logic.
Steve Douglas with more than three sons, Gidget and dad, Patty Duke and dad.
Mike Brady was an updated version of Ward Cleaver. Sensible, but his kids weren’t looking for that. Steve Douglas had three sons, really four, and was more of a “father knows best.” Again, both widowers.
Mostly, dads were prime targets for being not-so-hip, out of touch, and distracted family patriarchs. The TV moms usually had the power in the relationship, and brought the needed empathy to the family dynamics. More recently, think Malcolm in the Middle, Married with Children, Modern Family and That 70s Show for reinforcing dad as a bumbling, tower of jello.
TV dads were generally supposed to hand out advice or make us laugh, or both. It was understood that he brought home the bacon and did his best to set a moral tone, unless you are Al Bundy or Homer Simpson, and expectations were measurably lower.
In dramas, like The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie, the dad held the family together, even in tough times, and like Lucas McCain, even dispensed a bit of frontier justice. By the way, Lucas was a widower.
Caution: segue ahead
One TV dad not a bumbler or lost soul, but who was trying to figure out life as he guided
his family and a new career – Herschel Bernardi. You are saying, Herschel who?
Remember the voice of Charlie the Tuna on the tuna fish commercials? That was Herschel Bernardi. Way back, in black & white days, he was Lieutenant Jacoby, police contact to detective Peter Gunn. He also played Tevya in Fiddler On the Roof on Broadway and Zorba in Zorba the Greek, which got him nominated for Tony Awards for both roles.
Bernardi, blacklisted in the 1950s, had to restart his career, but did fine with starring roles on Broadway and character parts on television and film, and profitable voice work. You might know the face or recognize the voice, but maybe not his name.
In 1970, at age 47, Bernardi became a lead actor, at least for a short while. A middle aged, bald, laid-back, average looking Joe, gets his own television series, Arnie, about a career blue collar worker who suddenly gets bumped from the loading dock to the executive suite.
Arnie had a slight ethnic thing, and he struggled with life wearing a suit to work now, but the show was otherwise typical – working class family, dutiful wife, two kids, and all the dad issues.
Arnie lasted two years, never finding a big audience. A light comedy, it was not filmed in front of an audience, and put on the Saturday night lineup where viewership was normally low. In the first season, Arnie went up against The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show did have a very talented cast with the vivacious Sue Ane Langdon as Arnie’s wife, Roger Bowen, as Arnie’s boss, and Dick Van Patton and Charles Nelson Reilly. The show was distinctive enough to be nominated for an Emmy Award. The next season, network execs moved the show to Mondays where it lost viewers, before being moved back to Saturday’s where it languished and was cancelled. An unfortunate demise for a show with sensibilities that needed time to grow legs.
At the same time, Bernardi was cast in a movie of the week, part of the first season of the trendy, ABC Movie of the Week series. “But I Don’t Want to Get Married” was about a widower with two boys who must navigate the choppy waters of a single parent. A widowed (here we go again), accountant, with two boys – catnip to single women young and old. Now, this was at the beginning of the feminist movement, so women trying to snag eligible bachelors (i.e. helpless men), was still acceptable television material. The film is quite dated, but has a certain charm and innocent with Bernardi as the hapless, conservative male in a rapidly changing world of men and women.