Why We Loved These Favorite TV Dads

Actor Alan Thicke, gone too soon, stood among the best of the small-screen father figures

With Alan Thicke’s unfortunate passing this week comes a flood of memories of the actor’s best-known role, that of Dr. Jason Seaver of “Growing Pains.” Seaver was one of television’s most memorable and enduring patriarchs — a guy who dished out lasting life lessons no matter how tough things got.

“We were a good wish-fulfillment show,” Thicke told Entertainment Weekly back in 2011 about his appealing “Growing Pains” family.

“It was a functional, loving, amusing, somewhat relatable family that we all wish we could have been a part of,” he said. “I’m often flattered when people ask me for parenting advice, to which I usually say, ‘It’s easier being a good parent when you have 11 writers following you around, telling you what to say.’ That was the idyllic kind of family environment and dynamic that our writers created for us, and it’s largely the kind of family that a lot of people aspire to.”

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In front of television sets, audiences took in his worldly wisdom, sometimes more easily than they absorbed instruction and guidance from their own father figures.

Dr. Seaver convinced his kids not to do drugs (they were offered to his son Mike in an episode); to piece life back together after shattering events (such as when Mike was stood up at the altar); and how to take things one step at a time, accepting life’s happy surprises (like Seaver’s late-in-life newborn Chrissy).

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Seaver was not alone as a TV dad in dispensing wisdom and inhabiting all the characteristics that fathers of a certain generation everywhere aspire to.

One of the most famous TV families was headed by Mike Brady (played by Robert Reed originally), a widower and stepfather to three daughters and father to his own three sons. The big “Brady Bunch” family showed us the dynamics of getting along, learning to pick each other up, and complimenting each other’s skills and shortcomings. Brady was even named “Father of the Year” in an episode when one of his stepdaughters wrote an essay for the local newspaper — so there’s no arguing this point.

Herman Munster of “The Munsters” fame may have been a ridiculous-looking patriarch — but the episodes about that bizarre-looking family overall became a subtle metaphor for raising little monsters in all families everywhere. Through 70 episodes, Munster (Fred Gwynne) kept his family of vampires and werewolves running smoothly and in check.

It’s clear what a staple television dads have always been. There’s long been a need for strong role models — they were even around before television became our main source of home entertainment.

Robert Young played the patriarch in “Father Knows Best,” which ran on network TV from 1954 to 1963.

“Father Knows Best” became one of the first programs to delve into the lives of middle-class American families through a comedic lens. Starting out as a radio program in 1949, the series moved to TV in 1954. Robert Young played Jim Anderson, a father of three children who was always dispensing wisdom and advice — hence the title of the show. The series and its 200-episode run no doubt laid much of the groundwork for later sitcoms showing the inner workings of American nuclear families.

Steven Douglas (Fred MacMurray) was perhaps TV’s longest-running father over the course of 12 seasons and 380 episodes of “My Three Sons.” Originally premiering in 1960, “Sons” was the inspirational tale of a widower’s struggles to raise his three children alone. As if that weren’t enough, the father would go on to adopt another son, and then in the final years of the show the daughter of his new wife.

Not all TV dads are remembered for being the broad-shouldered men with good heads on their shoulders who keep things running smoothly. Some simply made us laugh and seemed so relatable that they carved a special place in our hearts.

Fred McMurray always had the right advice on “My Three Sons,” which aired from 1960 to 1972.

Through nine seasons of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Peter Boyle as Peter Barone inhabited every crickety and comical thing we could remember about our fathers or others we knew, from the way they complained to the way they just wanted to “relax and watch the game,” to the way they comically ribbed those they loved. Still, he was a father who took care of his family as best he could — and had plenty of advice and guidance for his sons when they needed it (and even when they didn’t).

His TV-show son, Raymond (played, of course, by Ray Romano), was a dad in his own right who in his own bumbling but good-hearted way tried to pass advice and love down to his own three children. 

It’s not like our lovable television dads have ever left us, either. Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) is a recurring character in the freshly rebooted “Full House” — now called “Fuller House.” Though the show now focuses on his children (whom we watched him raise, nurture, and take care of for eight seasons), Saget still manages to bring back the funny but warm Danny every now and then.

Related: An Even ‘Fuller House,” with a Few Complications

John Amos from “Good Times,” Reginald Vel Johnson in “Family Matters,” Tim Allen in “Home Improvement” — the list of memorable, lovable, and inspiring TV dads goes on and on. They were the cultural bedrock of the American family — the working-class man loving and nurturing his family and figuring out all of life’s familial mysteries right in front of our eyes, as highly imperfect as they might have been.

They’ll never go away — and never be forgotten.

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