The death of the great character actor John Mahoney recently reminded me of one of television history’s most underrated sitcoms, and of one of its most underrated TV dads.
Not that Frasier and Martin Crane were ignored in their day. It was a very popular show and a critical favorite. But, maybe because it was a spin-off of Cheers (though it actually holds up better in current viewing), neither gets the love they should in lists of the greatest of either.
But without Martin Crane as the manly gravity of the show, Frasier would not have been half as warm—or wise. This list is of TV dads who shared those same qualities. None of them are buffoons, nor are they idealized wise men. They might not have always understood their kids, but they loved them fiercely. And they might have occasionally lost their temper or been mistaken in their discipline, but we always knew the good place they were coming from.
Most of all, the impact on their kids is deep and undeniable. And trying to measure up to dad’s standard, even if it’s motivated by the fear of not making it, is a dominant feature in their kids’ lives—even if the kids are as superior as Frasier and Niles.
8. Jed Clampett—”The Beverly Hillbillies”
Well, doggies! Along with “Green Acres,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” was the funniest of the hick comedies of the ’60s. And while all the showy, slapstick roles went to those around him, Jed Clampett was the figure everyone (even Granny) came to when things needed to be set right.
And I’m sure that on one of those days he and Jethro had that lonnnnnggg talk.
7. Dan Conner—”Roseanne”
If you don’t think Dan Conner was the emotional center of the blue-collar comedy Roseanne, look at the disaster the show became when John Goodman left to concentrate on being one of Hollywood’s most reliable movie character actors.
So much so that the reboot of Roseanne is ignoring that final season in which Dan was killed off, and pretending it never happened.
Goodman was the softer moral center of this show, but not a wuss. It took a very good actor and a very good character not to be run over by both the actress and the character Roseanne.
6. Ward Cleaver—”Leave It to Beaver”
1950s and 1960s sitcoms were filled with wise fathers, from “Father Knows Best” to “My Three Sons.” But while he’s often lumped in with the list of over-idealized fathers, Ward was the most human of all. He had a temper, his sons occasionally exasperated him, and you just knew he wanted to pop Lumpy’s dad in the jaw.
Yes, all the good qualities of ’50s and ’60s Dad were part of Ward Cleaver’s character, but Hugh Beaumont (who played a bad guy once in a while in noir thrillers) made him a real man with an underrated sense of irony.
5. Red Forman—”That ’70s Show”
Speaking of parental exasperation, no one ever did it better than Red Forman. Or with more good reason.
Sure, the ’70s pot humor is over the top, but there was a lot right about the relationships in “That ’70s Show” (and half my high school life was spent driving around with teammates in a Vista Cruiser). But the center of it was Red Forman, who, despite his crusty manner, loved his wife and kids (though he was incredibly naïve about his daughter). He was a veteran, a hard-working guy—and the guy you didn’t want to catch you misbehaving.
If they were lucky, everybody who grew up in this era had a dad who shared a lot of Red’s qualities or had a friend who did.
4. Jay Pritchett—”Modern Family”
A lot of lists of great TV dads miss the point here, naming Phil Dunphy as the great TV dad. Mostly, those tend to reflect what the writers wished their dads had let them get away with.
But the dominant personality, the one everyone reacts to, is patriarch Jay Pritchett, the old-school dad in the modern world. He doesn’t necessarily accept the modern world, but he does accept his kids—even if grudgingly. When this show came out, I expected him to be the domineering old jerk who had to be schooled on tolerance by his wise gay son. (Jay is, after all, played by Ed O’Neill of Al Bundy infamy.)
But the opposite is, in fact, true. “Modern Family” finds plenty of virtue in Jay’s old-fashioned ways and he gets all of the really good final minute voiceovers about life.
3. Hank Hill—”King of the Hill”
Despite Hank’s constant declaration that “The boy ain’t right,” there’s no doubt whatsoever who has Bobby Hill’s back when the chips are down.
More than any other show, Mike Judge’s very conservative “King of the Hill” was about an old-fashioned guy refusing to buckle to the soft, politically correct modern world. Part of his concern was keeping this world from claiming his son—a task made harder by the fact that the boy is his polar opposite in personality.
Whether he is teaching Bobby (and the whole school) how to work with his hands, warning of the dangers of soccer, or making him smoke a whole pack of cigarettes to cure him of the temptation to smoke (okay, maybe not the best idea), Hank’s battle for truth, justice, the American Way, football and propane made for 13 of television’s most memorable seasons.
2. Martin Crane—”Frasier”
Probably the best long-running portrayal of a father with adult sons is in “Frasier,” a sitcom about what happens when a crusty police officer who is retired after a gunshot wound moves in (along with the world’s ugliest recliner) with his fussy, overrefined son.
Even funnier than the culture clash between the characters was their often misbegotten efforts to understand one another. For all their achievements, wealth, and snotty superiority, all that Frasier and Niles really wanted to do was be real men in their dad’s eyes. And despite all the conflict, when it came down to it, they were.
For 11 terrific seasons, Frasier was hilarious, but also unexpectedly warm. And it had the good sense to end while it was still good—and with an emotional final episode that did the series justice.
1. Eric Taylor—”Friday Night Lights”
Coach Eric Taylor wasn’t just the dad to a teenaged and infant daughter, he was also the father figure to a whole school filled with wrong-side-of-the-tracks football players in a hardscrabble Texas town.
Perfectly played by Kyle Chandler, Coach Taylor is as realistic a father and husband as any played on television—particularly in the way he balances a job he is very good at and the needs of his family, all played out in a public way.
“Friday Night Lights” is also the best show about smalltown America, high school sports, and high school in general. Perhaps best of all, it also launched Peter Berg’s career as Clint Eastwood’s only competition as a modern chronicler of competent American manhood.