Father Knows Best cast 1954 webAverage family life in the United States has changed over the decades, to the point where the term "normal family" is no longer comprehensible. As society has changed, so has its most visible manifestation: the TV show. Whether art imitates life or life imitates art, the portrayal of family members, including fathers, has morphed over the past half-century or so. From fathers who are the head of the family (the original name of "The Dick Van Dyke Show") to fathers who talk to cars and horses, to fathers who haven't a clue, TV has held up an electronic mirror to society in all its forms.

Following are some portraits of dads both dumb and debonair, who may remind you of the father you had, have, didn't have, are, or wish you were or had. As you read, remember what the adopted father of Linda, Tony, Kelly, and Eleanora sang, "Thanks for the memories."

Probably the earliest TV dad, epoch-wise, was Fred Flintstone. He was the typical rock-solid, middle-class dad with a tough boss, faithful family and pets, and good-buddy neighbors. We're not sure how he steered his car, but although occasionally as misdirected as his bowling throws, he steered his family to happy endings.

At the other end of the time-space continuum is George Jetson. He was the Space Age equivalent of Fred Flintstone, with his head occasionally in the clouds but his feet on the ground. Both families were the ground-breaking creations of Hanna-Barbera Productions — the first prime-time cartoons.

Father Knows Best, the 1954 - 60 series with the politically-incorrect title, starred Robert Young as Jim Anderson, the soft-yet-sage head of an idealized family. He was always there, when he wasn't selling insurance, to provide advice when the Princess, Bud, and Kitten went astray, like when Bud is accused of cheating on a test, or Kitty loses her homework.

Danny Thomas served as a transitional figure during his 11-year run on Make Room for Daddy and The Danny Thomas Show. He started as a busy nightclub entertainer, whose wife is primary caregiver to their two children. He then became a widower who had to balance work with being a single dad. He finally morphed into a remarried man with a step-daughter. Through it all, he stayed true to his real-life image as a champion for children, founding St. Jude's Children's Hospital in 1962.

The single-father character was personified in the town of Mayberry, North Carolina, the "birthplace" of The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. Andy Griffith and Ken Berry played single fathers to Opie and Mike, respectively. Andy Taylor (Griffith) was the sheriff of Mayberry, fighting crime while Aunt Bea ran the household. Sam Jones (Berry) started his TV life as head of the Mayberry town council. Both fathers had love interests and perfect little boys.

One of the ultimate single fathers was Ben Cartwright, played with grit and empathy by Lorne Greene. The 14-year-long show was a Bonanza for NBC. Ben was widowed three times (You would think potential suitors would learn), and each marriage produced a son. Ben and sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe took great pride in the Ponderosa ranch and each other. The boys were never too old to learn from "Paw." They had a Chinese cook and cared more for justice and goodness than shooting everybody.

From an enormous ranch to a Little House on the Prairie, Michael Landon ("Pa" Charles Ingalls) went from son to father of several children tackling drugs, leukemia, child abuse, and other real-life issues, with homey wisdom and strength.

Some dads became dads during their TV tenures. One of the first was an unlikely, for the time, costar, a Cuban bandleader married to a flighty redhead of Irish, Scottish, French, and English descent. I Love Lucy starred Desi Arnaz, who played Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo. During the show, Lucy gave birth to "Little Ricky," the same time the "real" Lucy birthed Desi, Jr. This was during a time when pregnancy was neither to be shown or mentioned on TV. Hard to hide that one. Ricky loved his son, taught him about Cuba, and encouraged his drum skills, sharing father-and-son band performances.

The image of fatherhood took a turn from the noble to the coarse when All in the Family and Sanford and Son hit the airwaves. Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) was Pop to "Big Dummy" Lamont, eking out a questionable living as single dad and son in a junkyard. Although they constantly fought and separated, they maintained a close bond and had each other's back.
Archie "There's a little of me in all of you" Bunker, the lower-middle-class bigot, had the dubious talent of making himself look foolish by trying to make everyone else look foolish. Carroll O'Connor did not set a good example for his daughter and "Meathead" son-in-law, but his buffoonery showed us who not to imitate.

The inept father took shape in shows that included Everybody Loves Raymond and Home Improvement. Ray (Barone) Romano was a mama's boy with an obnoxious father, which may explain why he was such a slouch when it came to parenthood (and everything-else-hood). Tim (Taylor) Allen was a kid at heart, hosting the manly Tool Time cable show while trying to control three rambunctious boys and trying to avoid hurting himself or burning down the house. He always knew when to admit he was wrong and seek — and take — advice. He was so successful that he traded the boys in for girls and starred in Last Man Standing as the successful and practical Mike Baxter, outspoken conservative executive in an outdoor sporting goods store.
From Ozzie and Harriet to Jed Clampett to Bill Cosby to The Simpsons, for better or worse, fatherhood has been displayed in all its facets.

Happy Father's Day!

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