Fictional fathers run gamut from heroic to horrible
This father always dressed in a dark suit. The man had a jolly sense of humor and was the strongest guy on the block.
He became great friends with his father-in-law. He let his son keep a fire-breathing dragon under the staircase. And if the kid wanted to stay up late and watch old horror movies on TV, this Dad probably would have joined him.
Herman Munster, the befuddled family man from the 1960s television show “The Munsters,” might have been one of the best fictional fathers of all time. And today — as people appreciate paternal partners for Father’s Day — it’s a nice time to appreciate the pops famous in pop culture.
“I think the reason we keep returning to father issues in pop culture is because that is one of the central relationships in most people’s lives,” said Charles Coletta, who teaches in the pop culture department at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.
“We all have to come to terms with our dads, even if they are absent in one way or another, and pop culture provides a way for those issues to be reflected to a broad audience.”
Society changes. Sometimes depictions of fathers in pop culture have changed, too.
“We have gone from the idealized 1950s-1960s TV dads to more recent ‘dopey dads’ who constantly exasperate their wives and kids,” Coletta said.
Added Christopher Sharrett, professor of film studies at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University: “Film and television have always provided fathers who are either implausible or monstrous or both.”
Among some of the better known, with grades for passing or failing:
• George Bailey — Jimmy Stewart’s good-hearted father shows up every December in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Trouble leads to triumph, and George’s reunion with his children in the final minutes is one of the high points of the 1946 film. Pass.
• Vito Corleone — “The Godfather” made harsh moves to secure his ascension in the criminal underworld, but he was actually a pretty good father. He threw a lavish wedding party for his daughter Connie; he gave hotheaded son Santino stern advice. He adopted Tom Hagen into his clan. And he tried to keep son Michael out of the dangerous family business. Pass.
• Jack Torrance — The troubled writer played by Jack Nicholson in 1980’s “The Shining” is driven nuts by ghosts at the deserted Overlook Hotel. He tries to correct his son Danny by chasing him with an ax. Fail.
• Al Bundy — The poor slob played by Ed O’Neill from the 1980s and 1990s Fox series “Married . . . With Children” hates his job and seems to hate his wife and kids, all in the name of situation comedy. Fail.
• Cliff Huxtable — Bill Cosby is a doctor who cares about his wife and kids and makes family one of the central themes in “The Cosby Show” during its eight-year run on NBC from 1984 until 1992. Pass.
All kinds of dads
Fathers come with all kinds of personalities.
“Part of it is because that’s how we not only see our dads, but everybody in our lives,” said Walter J. Podrazik, curator and television exhibition writer for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. “They have their good moments, they have their bad moments, their brilliant moments, their dumb moments. And when we see them portrayed, especially with recurring characters on television, we have those moments [of] ‘Oh yeah, that’s just like my dad.’ Or worse, ‘That’s just like me.’ ”
Coletta has three favorite pop culture fathers — one from the 1950s, a second from the 1960s and a third from the 2010s.
“Ozzie Nelson was the epitome of the 1950s-idealized TV dad,” Coletta said of the main man in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” “Although the series ran for more than a decade, it never actually said what his occupation was. Ozzie was always there to offer some sage advice to sons David and Ricky. He could be goofy but you never questioned his authority.”
Atticus Finch was never goofy. The conscientious lawyer of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a man of authority, conviction and respect. The movie version of the book was released in 1962.
“I believe Atticus remains the gold standard for fathers in popular culture,” Coletta said. “He is wise and gentle but not a saint. I know readers and viewers really respond to his honest and truthful relationship with daughter Scout.”
Coletta put a newcomer, Burt Hummel of the Fox series “Glee,” in third place. Mike O’Malley has the role.
“Over the last several seasons, viewers have watched him come to terms with having a gay son,” Coletta said. “He was first seen as a single father who really couldn’t relate to his son’s lifestyle at all and in this season’s finale he danced and sang to a Béyoncé song to express his fatherly love and acceptance.”
Dad on the dark side
A father who first appeared in 1977 tops Coletta’s list of fathers who have failed the course.
“Darth Vader,” he said, naming the villain from the eternally popular “Star Wars” series. “For kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I don’t think there was ever anything as shocking as when Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father. Your greatest enemy is also your dad, and he’s trying to lure you over to the dark side? That was certainly dramatic for me as a child.”
Jay Bobbin, a nationally syndicated media writer for Tribune Media, prefers the classic TV dads from the 1950s and early 1960s. He said Ward Cleaver, played by Hugh Beaumont in “Leave it to Beaver,” and Alex Stone, patriarch of the family in “The Donna Reed Show,” were able to mix perplexity with sensibility.
“Another couple of dads who were true best friends as well as fathers to their sons were Sheriff Andy Taylor of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and Tom Corbett [Bill Bixby] of ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,’ ” Bobbin said. “One of TV’s ultimate father figures in every sense was John Walton, [played by] Ralph Waite in ‘The Waltons.’ And one that’s been neglected in more recent times is Reverend Eric Camden — Stephen Collins in ‘7th Heaven’ — whose patience with his ever-growing brood may have been due in part to his calling, but who generally managed to keep it together parentally on general principle.”
Debra J. Caruso, who runs the New York City media relations firm DJC Communications and writes the television blog TV Takes All (www.tvtakesall.com), said writers made Ray Romano a lousy father on “Everyone Loves Raymond.” Jim Belushi also scored few points, Caruso said, as a dad in his “World According to Jim” series.
More sympathetic writers are giving dads a break in 2012.
“Thankfully, things are getting better on some newer TV shows like ‘Modern Family’ and the new Tim Allen show [“Last Man Standing”], where fathers are being portrayed in a better light,” Caruso said. “For a good long time, TV writers were creating the most silly and sometimes idiotic fathers.”
Fathers in literature
Fathers have also made memories on book pages. Bob Cratchit suffers Scrooge’s scowls and tantrums in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but endures the treatment only to better support his family. And by the final stave, the redeemed Scrooge has become a family man himself. Charles Ingalls did his share for fatherhood’s pioneer spirit as he raised his family in the American Midwest of the 19th century. Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered those days in her “Little House on the Prairie” books.
Other fathers in literature are not such stand-up guys. Dr. Kevin Harty, chairman of the English department at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, said the crumbs include Agamemnon, King Lear and Torvald Helmer.
Helmer, from “A Doll’s House,” is the worst of the bunch.
“Ibsen makes it clear that ‘he just doesn’t get it,’ ” Harty said. “ ‘It’ being what he has done wrong. He is unredeemed and basically irredeemable. It is one of the great villains in my mind as a result.”
Father figures have been key figures on other printed pages — comic books.
Brad Ricca, a professor of pop culture at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the connections between fathers and sons have deep meanings — for both stories and readers.
“In superhero comics, many of the best fathers are actually absent ones,” Ricca said. “Superman’s father Jor-el, Batman’s Thomas Wayne, even Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben are all characters who appear only briefly as part of the character’s origins. All three of them, often in the first few pages, actually sacrifice their own lives in different ways that inspire the eventual superhero.”
Ricca said these can seem like pretty serious scenarios to throw at young readers. But they’re successful, he continued, “Because part of the fantasy of being a powerful, autonomous superhero is to be rid of the yoke of law-giving parents — who tend to put ‘unfair’ restrictions on 10-year-old boys.”
“For the fantasy of being a grown-up with superhuman power to be complete,” Ricca added, “the father figure has to disappear. But this absence has to retain a strong element of guilt and sadness, otherwise the young reader can’t fully enjoy the fantasy.”
Some fathers are all about fantasy. Like a guy who could laugh about a fire-breathing dragon living under his staircase.
“Herman Munster was a father with a huge heart, both figuratively and probably literally,” said Caruso, defending Fred Gwynne’s parody of the Frankenstein monster. “He tried so hard to please his wacky family, but always ended up with a mess. He was always kind and giving — so yes, he should be on the ‘good’ list.”