My TV Dads: The Fictional Fathers Who Influenced This Gen-X Parent

Like anyone in a generation raised by television, I had more than just the one dad

My mother and father were both hard working folks who taught me enduring moral values, while fostering my appreciation of the arts and nature. After they divorced, they each remarried, and I was lucky to have a stepmother and stepfather who were excellent models of maturity, calm and compassion. These were all good parents.

But like a lot of Generation X-ers, I also had a fifth parent: Television.

I was a model couch potato in the 1970s and 1980s: the kind of kid who memorized each week’s TV Guide, and always knew exactly when my favorite programs were on. Back then, I rode bikes with my friends, played epic Wiffle ball games in my backyard, and kept books and comics stacked up by my bed. But I also carved out time for game shows in the morning, old syndicated sitcoms in the afternoon, the best Carter- and Reagan-era television during primetime and more old sitcoms after everyone else in my house had gone to bed.

Along the way I developed my taste — not just in the kind of TV I liked but in the kind of characters I admired. I gained valuable insights into how to be a friend, an employee, a partner and — yes — a dad. My two kids are close to grown now. (One just started college last year; the other’s just two years away from finishing high school.) Whether they know it or not, they were raised not just by my wife and me, but by these fictional fathers, who each in their own way taught me how to be an okay parent.

Steven Douglas, My Three Sons

The pre-Woodstock era for family sitcoms is often bashed for the way its dads look and sound: always in a suit and tie, always calmly authoritative and always very, very white. Ward Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver is probably the apotheosis of this. But these shows and their heads of household also struck a tone that was much hipper than many people remember, offering wry commentary on the absurdity and intensity of children’s lives.

I have a lot of respect for Ward Cleaver (and Ozzie Nelson, Jim Anderson, Dr. Alex Stone, etc.). But my favorite TV dad from this time is Steven Douglas, a widowed father who watched the younger generation grow up from 1960 to 1972 — an especially heady era for the teen set. My Three Sons was mostly a low-stakes domestic sitcom, with only the mildest occasional foray into social commentary. Throughout, the series took its cues from its star, Fred MacMurray, who played Steve as both affable and wise: a dad who holds his kids (and himself) accountable for any mistakes they make, but who also gives them the freedom to make their own choices. He often finds his kids’ preoccupations odd or even ridiculous, but he takes the youngsters themselves seriously.

Andy Taylor, The Andy Griffith Show

I was born in Atlanta, and I spent most of my formative years (from age seven to high school graduation) in Nashville. Yet it took me a while to develop any appreciation for what could be called “Southern entertainment.” As a boy I liked heavy rock and kitschy pop, not country, and I preferred Steve Martin to any cornpone comic on Hee Haw. It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I started watching old episodes of The Andy Griffith Show religiously, and found that the series captured something ineffable about both the sense of shared history and the leisurely pace of life outside the big city.

I was especially drawn — then and now — to Andy Griffith’s performance as Sheriff Andy Taylor, a widowed father and a conscientious peacekeeper, who takes care of the town of Mayberry with the same fairness, generosity and heart with which he takes care of his son, Opie. Andy has a good sense of humor, and an affinity for music. But more importantly, he tries his best to understand and even to enjoy every eccentric citizen in his constituency. He’s at ease with himself and his neighbors, and he models that every day for his boy.

(On TV these days, the character who most reminds me of Andy Taylor is Young Sheldon’s George Cooper: a sturdy but open-minded Texan who loves his family and just wants what’s best for his weirdo kids.)

Steven Keaton, Family Ties

In the mid-1980s, I spent nearly every Thursday night with two TV dads: Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and Steven Keaton on Family Ties. Bill Cosby’s offscreen crimes make his signature character a lot harder to enjoy these days. But Michael Gross’ fictional father remains a Gen-X unifier, remembered fondly by my people. That’s mainly due to Gross’ performance: at once soulful and deadpan, as he embodies the ideals and the foibles of a middle-aged ex-hippie. It was incredibly meaningful between 1982 and 1989 — the heart of the Reagan era — to see an aging lefty who wasn’t depicted as a sellout or a joke.

What primarily makes Steven Keaton such an exemplary TV dad, though, isn’t his counterculture cred — it’s more that he doesn’t try to impose his values on his materialistic kids. He loves them for who they are, and in some cases — especially with his money-loving conservative son Alex — pulls them back a bit toward the center, by showing them the virtues of living a life filled with joy, passion and purpose.

Julius, Everybody Hates Chris

Television comedy in the 1990s mostly moved out of suburban living rooms, settling instead into urban apartments, coffee shops and offices. There were exceptions, of course — mostly all on ABC. Roseanne, Home Improvement and the family-friendly “TGIF” line-up (much of which was a holdover from the 1980s) kept the focus on the interactions of parents and kids, even as other sitcoms followed the lead of Friends, where whenever the characters had children the little tykes were quickly hustled offscreen.

The tide began to turn back in the 2000s, thanks to some shows that took innovative approaches to domestic stories, emphasizing the peculiar stresses and general wackiness that comes with being part of a family. Malcolm in the Middle — with its own offbeat TV dad, Hal — was a groundbreaker in that regard. So was Chris Rock and Ali LeRoi’s Everybody Hates Chris, the title of which was a spoof of Everybody Loves Raymond (a family sitcom where, frankly, the kids barely played much of a role).

The name “Rock” is never mentioned on the show, but Julius (played by Terry Crews) was actually the name of Chris Rock’s father, and shares the work ethic of the real-life Julius’ work ethic, who reportedly moonlighted in multiple blue-collar jobs. Despite the exaggerated tone of Everybody Hates Chris, Julius remains a primo pop. He respects other people (especially women); and he knows what’s worth spending money on. He shows his love for his offspring by keeping them clothed and fed, and by otherwise encouraging them to fend for themselves.

Mike Heck, The Middle

ABC has continued to be one of the most stable television homes for funny stories about families. The network’s programmers spent much of the 2010s building multiple nights around the likes of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, The Real O’Neals, The Kids Are Alright and more. The Emmy-winning ratings champion that helped launch this wave was Modern Family, which has its own all-time great parent in the fun-loving Phil Dunphy.

I liked Modern Family, but I always preferred The Middle, which debuted the same year, in 2009. For nine seasons — all excellent — the series followed a working-class Indiana family’s ups and downs, as jobs came and went, appliances broke down and were repaired (savings permitting), and kids grew up and moved away. One of the two people overseeing this nuclear family was Mike Heck (played by Neil Flynn), a construction foreman and diehard Colts fan, who barely has time at the end of a workday to do more than scarf down a fast-food dinner and watch a little TV.

If there’s one trait that connects all these dads, it’s that none of them are what today would be called a “helicopter parent.” They keep up with what their kids are doing, but they also have their own lives and interests, and they encourage their offspring to handle their own business. It’s possible I identify with Mike Heck more than anyone else on this list because The Middle never clarifies whether his philosophy is something he’s thought deeply about, or whether — like so many of us — he just knows there’s never enough hours in the day to be Super-Dad. Either way, when it counts, Mike shows up. Even if he’s hands-off, he’s still around, and he’s paying attention.

So Happy Fathers Day to all the Andys, Juliuses, Mikes and Stevens out there — and to the magic box where they live.