In a recent Parents Television Council study, it was reported that 83% of all prime-time family sitcoms involve some form of father-child relationship. If you do the math, that’s a whole lot of TV dads. With the history of television already spanning more than 50 years, there certainly are some fictional fathers that have struck a chord with audiences. But which ones?
To compile this list, I applied a number of criteria. They are:
The character must primarily be known as a father;
The main purpose of this character is to be a father figure;
The show must appeal to men in general (so Danny Tanner from Full House is out);
The show may, or may not, currently be on the air;
Finally, if we were to ask people 20 years from now about the most memorable TV dads in history, the same names would likely come up. Read on to find out which TV dads deserve a Father’s Day card.
Number 10 Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) My Three Sons
Between 1960 and 1972, TV audiences would gather around the TV to watch Steve Douglas, a widower left with the task of raising his three sons, as the title indicates, with the help of his housekeeper, “Uncle Charlie.” One of the longest-running shows in U.S. history, it’s also one of those rare programs to have survived a network change from ABC to CBS.
Obviously, after 369 episodes, audiences got used to Steve Douglas. Behind the comedy, this sitcom addressed the real-life tribulations of education and what it takes for a man to be a perfect single parent, in a time when the image of the traditional nuclear family was still very strong in the media.
Memorable line: “I was prepared for two babies, but the contract didn’t call for triplets!”
Number 9 Homer Simpson (voice of Dan Castellaneta) The Simpsons
On the air since 1989, this socially satirical animated series follows the everyday life of the politically incorrect Simpson family. Bart is the underachiever, Lisa is the responsible one, Maggie is the baby, Marge is the mother, and then there’s Homer, the dad.
Homer is a lazy slob, a lovable goof who works at the nuclear plant. He stumbles through his life with a sort of cultivated indifference that only he can pull off. What’s so great about him is that, even though his flaws are monumental, it’s obvious that he really cares about his kids… even though it sometimes seems like he prefers beer and TV.
Memorable line: “Alcohol, the cause of and solution to all life’s problems.”
Number 8 Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) Bonanza
On a ranch in Nevada, Ben Cartwright settles in with his three sons from different unions and has to deal with particular problems in every episode. Not only did the show last more than a decade, from 1959 to 1973, it was one of the most popular and influential Western shows ever on the air.
That was mostly thanks to the character of Ben Cartwright. He was a pillar of the community mostly because of his strength and righteousness. Even though the Bonanza storylines often focused on the sons, Ben was always on hand to offer them advice. And like any good father, he constantly helped out the neighbors with their problems.
Memorable line: “A man’s never wrong doing what he thinks is right!”
From Fred Flintstone to Frank Costanza, these TV dads were the best..
Number 7 Fred Flintstone (voice of Alan Reed) The Flintstones
This animated sitcom, which aired between 1960 and 1966, was truly one of a kind, as it was set in the Stone Age. At its core, the show was loosely based on the four main characters of The Honeymooners, with the relationship between Fred and Barney symbolizing that of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton.
Fred became a father when Pebbles was born (incidentally, the show featured one of the first pregnancies on prime-time television). A genuine blue-collar caveman from Bedrock, Fred means well and only wants the best for his family and young daughter, but his thirst for luxury keeps getting him involved in get-rich-quick schemes that never quite work out.
Memorable line: “Wiiilmaaaaaaa!”
Number 6 Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) Seinfeld
Definitely one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history, audiences loved following the everyday adventures of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, his wacky neighbor Kramer, and his friends Elaine and George. Between 1990 and 1998, the world witnessed the first show to admit that it was about nothing (even though it managed to address everything).
One of the greatest supporting characters on the show was Frank Costanza, George’s father. This was a man who took himself and life way too seriously, and whose regular tone of voice was characterized by shouting. He never smiled, he never laughed, and everything was a tragedy that required a harebrained idea (from the “Mansier” or the “Bro” — a bra for men — to “Festivus”). A great cook, he couldn’t get over the fact that he once accidentally induced food poisoning to his troops during the Korean War.
Memorable line: “Doctor gave me a relaxation cassette. When my blood pressure gets too high, the man on the tape tells me to say, ‘Serenity Now!'”
Number 5 Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) Married… with Children
Imagine an all-too-perfect American family. You’ve got the image in your head? Now imagine the complete opposite, and you get the Bundy family. Between 1987 and 1997, the world was introduced to Peggy, the ditzy mom who spent her life at the salon, Kelly, the superficial daughter played by Christina Applegate, Bud, the horndog son, and finally Al, the man of the house.
A shoe salesman, Al was fond of reminiscing about his fleeting glory on the football field of his youth. But it was really his nonchalant attitude that made him such a popular character. He acted like he didn’t care about his wife and kids, as if they were the ones holding him back from greatness. Constantly grumpy, this was one of TV’s most unsophisticated guys.
Memorable line: “Those articles that say married couples have sex every month are just sensationalistic lies perpetrated on the public to sell magazines. It’s hooey I tell you, hooey.”
Check out the best pops on the tube, from Archie to Heathcliff…
Number 4 Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) All in the Family
From 1971 to 1979, the TV landscape changed with the debut of this show, thanks to the numerous debates within the Bunker household. More than a few political topics were discussed over the years, while never letting the comedic aspect of the series out of sight. It was truly groundbreaking.
At the core of the sitcom was the relationship between Archie and his son-in-law Michael, otherwise lovingly known as “Meathead.” While the latter was liberal in his ideas, Archie Bunker was a loud and rude conservative bigot, and proud of it. Basically, if his mouth didn’t have a cigar in it, then his foot would be right there. He may have talked down to his wife Edith, but you can sense that he loved her.
Memorable line: “Little boys who play with dolls grow up to be other boys’ roommates.”
Number 3 Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) Leave It to Beaver
Even though it only ran between 1957 and 1963, the show remains one of the most popular in history. The premise followed an All-American family and their youngest son, nicknamed the Beaver, who always got into trouble despite himself. But by the end of every feel-good 30 minutes, the Beav learned his lesson.
Ward Cleaver was a businessman who worked in salt mines. He was not only very responsible in his career, but also in his duties as father. The model father that he was, he rarely raised his voice, admitted when he was wrong (which was rare), and was always very attentive to his loving family. Anyone who grew up during this period has on one occasion wished that Ward was their own dad.
Memorable line: “Wally, believe it or not, I was your age once.”
Number 2 Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) The Cosby Show
Sitcoms were waning in popularity until this one came along in 1984. For eight seasons, audiences were glued to NBC in order to see the family life of upscale obstetrician Dr. Huxtable. With five children, there was tremendous potential for story development and storylines of all sorts were certainly explored. The Cosby Show really was the first show to portray upper-class African-Americans.
Obviously, Cliff Huxtable found it easier to deliver other people’s babies than to raise his own. His children would create most of the stress in his life, and he dealt with issues with witty one-liners and impersonations. Interestingly, since Bill Cosby holds a doctorate in education, he was able to use his creative control over the show to insert his views on childrearing. So Dr. Huxtable was funny and smart.
Memorable line: “And you’re going to do it because I said so. I am your father. I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out!”
Number 1 Jim Anderson, Sr. (Robert Young) Father Knows Best
After a successful run on radio, the show came to television in 1954, where it remained until 1960. This sitcom was everything that Married… with Children was trying to avoid: perfect people living perfect lives, where problems are never present. Mild-mannered Jim would come home from work, trade his jacket for a sweater, and offer counsel to the family members.
The character and this show eventually reflected the ultimate fatherly ideal, a man who puts his family before everything. It’s too bad that this show didn’t have much of an influence on its actors though; Robert Young was an alcoholic and onscreen daughter Lauren Chapin became a heroin addict and prostitute. Still, this dad was the best.
Memorable line: “A fellow just hates to admit he’s wrong. It takes a little courage to do it, and swallowing of pride, but it’s one of the paths to wisdom.”
is tv better than reality?
As you go over the list of best TV dads, it’s clear that memorable fictional fathers don’t fit a specific stereotype. They represent a variety of different men whose only commonality was the fact that they were brilliantly shaped by the actors who portrayed them.
Of course, they could never replace our own dads — in many cases we wouldn’t want them to — but they made us laugh while teaching us a thing or two. Stay tuned to the tube and see if you can discover a new generation of great TV dads.