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Image: "Leave It To Beaver"
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“Leave It To Beaver's” Ward Cleaver ended every show with wise words and a life lesson for his sons. And Cleaver, unlike his on-screen successors with smart-aleck kids, always had the last word.
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updated 6/24/2010 1:47:14 PM ET 2010-06-24T17:47:14

As Father's Day approaches, it's a good time to step back and ponder the evolution of the patres familias on television. Our starting point is, of course, Jim Anderson (“Father Knows Best”) and Ward Cleaver (“Leave It To Beaver”). We end with the many dads featured in this season's breakouts, ABC's “Modern Family” and NBC's primetime drama “Parenthood.”

TV fatherhood has traveled a circuitous path to reach this point. The earliest portrayals of dads were mostly simplistic and idealized, closely sticking to the script of what an ideal dad should be. The 1970s and '80s gave way to new family shows that mirrored our shifting society. Suddenly blended families, dual-income parents and work-from-home dads graced our screens.

As feminism built, moms began overshadowing TV dads, who played the part of the well-meaning idiot. Now, in this era of anything-goes-TV, primetime lineups offer a range of dads and family set-ups that, arguably, more accurately reflect modern fathers: breadwinners, nurturers, sages, bumblers and, most importantly, real guys who want to be great fathers but don't always know what they're doing.

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TV dads of the 1950s and early '60s were the fathers we hoped for with the family lives we dreamed of. Dad worked a boring but steady 9-to-5 while mom was at home to manage the kids in a middle-class suburban bubble. Iconic Jim Anderson from “Father Knows Best” returned from his insurance job every evening, removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves to solve the problems of the family — crises that ranged from prom dates to homework to burnt pot roast.

"In early depictions of the father, particularly on ‘Leave It To Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best,’ dads are these guiding and almost godlike figures in the family," says pop culture expert Al Martin. "The classic archetype of a 1950s dad was to bring home the bacon, get involved in the children's lives and be the wise disciplinarian."

Family life was simple, often spent around the dinner table talking about the day's events. Dad was the patriarch and moral compass of the family. “Leave It To Beaver's” Ward Cleaver ended every show with wise words and a life lesson for his sons. And Cleaver, unlike his on-screen successors with smart-aleck kids, always had the last word.

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"We really began to see the splintered dad in the late 1960s and the 1970s," says Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, director of communication studies at Widener University in Pennsylvania. After the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, American idealism was breaking down and so were our father figures. Archie Bunker of “All In The Family,” as an example, was flawed and harbored bitter prejudices, which reflected a "very different image of the father and a greater societal disenchantment," says DeWerth-Pallmeyer.

Changes in broader society and family dynamics were increasingly showcased on camera in the next few decades. “Brady Bunch” dad Mike Brady was one of TV's first stepfathers, and his blended family of six kids was a far cry from mom, dad, 2.5 kids and a dog (although they did have a dog, Tiger, for two seasons). TV parents Elyse and Steven Keaton from “Family Ties” both worked full-time, as did Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” Suddenly dad was no longer the sole provider.

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"Roles of dads started to shift with the rise of first and second wave feminism," says Martin. "We began seeing women working outside of the home and as strong female heads of household."

“The Cosby Show” offered an updated version of “Father Knows Best.” The Huxtables shared economic and parenting responsibilities, while the character co-created and played by Bill Cosby maintained the role of the wise and loving father. Yet, he wasn't perfect. And unlike previous television moms, Clair was strong, independent and an equal counterweight on the show.

The late '80s and into the '90s featured the rise of the idiot dad. Martin says that in an attempt to counteract and ridicule authority and patriarchy, TV moms became overly strong and TV dads turned into buffoons. “The Simpsons” started a wave of deplorable, idiot dads (looking at you, “Family Guy”) who need more mothering by their wives than their kids. Homer Simpson (D’oh!) was more often seen drinking, belching and tripping up rather than doing any real parenting. Likewise, Al Bundy on “Married With Children” was another anti-dad who would rather be anywhere else than with his family.

Image: ABC's "Modern Family"
Bob D'Amico  /  ABC
ABC's “Modern Family” more accurately represents the range of family structures acceptable today. The show breaks ground by portraying a same-sex couple that struggles through adoption and fatherhood and an older father with a start-over family.

"It used to be that father knew best, and then we started to wonder if he knew anything at all," says Matt Roush, senior television critic at TV Guide Magazine. "Dads became bumbling fools and the butts of jokes."

Roush describes the family on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as "suffering" the dad character, Ray Barone. The mom, Debra, is the one who keeps the family together. "She thinks he's an idiot and tells him so," Roush says. "Dads used to rule the roost, but now they come home and are like, 'Oh God, what have I come home to?'"

But after moving from wise dads to clueless dads, today's TV fathers are beginning to find a balance. "With cutting edge shows and reality television, we're starting to get a more realistic view of fatherhood," says celebrity dad Dean McDermott, who stars in Oxygen network's reality show “Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood” with his wife, Tori Spelling, and their three kids.

McDermott recently hosted a TV Guide Network special called Modern TV Dads, which examined the latest crop of television fathers. He points to shows like ABC's “Modern Family” as more accurately representing the range of family structures acceptable today. The show breaks ground by portraying a same-sex couple that struggles through adoption and fatherhood and an older father with a start-over family.

While past shows delved into dual-earning parenthood, modern series are portraying moms as sole breadwinners. "With more women in the workforce, dads are also stepping up to the plate to be stay-at-home dads and the main parent," McDermott says.

“Parenthood,” NBC's new primetime drama, features couple Joel and Julia, where Joel is a nurturing stay-at-home dad and Julia is a high-powered lawyer. The show also follows several different types of paternal characters — a grandfather, a breadwinner and an accidental dad — and all are portrayed as capable, loving fathers who may not know what they're doing but are trying their best.

"We're getting a real insight into dads now," says McDermott. "Parenthood doesn't come with a manual, and we're seeing dads make mistakes and in different situations. It's about time. It takes the pressure off us."

© 2012 Forbes.com

Photos: Celebrity daddies 2010

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  1. Celebrity daddies 2010

    Dad: Adam Sandler Daughters: Sadie and Sunny Madeline Sandler Fun fact: Sandler didn’t want to be a comedian until age 17, when he performed at a Boston comedy club. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Dad: Ben Affleck Daughters: Violet Anne and Seraphina Affleck Fun fact: When asked by Matt Lauer how he'd cope with his daughters dating, Affleck, who is married to actress Jennifer Garner, replied: "I'm already planning on it – practicing the rocking-chair-and-rifle routine (PacificCoastNews.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Dad: Travis Barker Kids: Landon and Alabama Barker Fun fact: Before his daughter’s birth, he told People magazine: “Hopefully, it will be Christmas Eve. I am hoping for a girl.” On Christmas Eve 2005, a baby girl was born. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dad: Brad Pitt Kids: Sons Knox, Maddox, Pax Jolie-Pitt and daughters Zahara, Vivienne and Shiloh Jolie Pitt Fun fact: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie met while co-starring in the 2005 film “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Of fatherhood, Pitt said it "completely changes your perspective and certainly takes the focus off yourself." (Luigi Costantini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Dad: Ed Burns Kids: Grace and Finn Burns Fun Fact: Burn’s wife, supermodel Christy Turlington, is attending Columbia University, where she hopes to achieve a master’s degree in public health. (Arnaldo Magnani / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dad: Chris Daughtry Kids: Hannah and Griffin Daughtry Fun fact: Chris told People magazine he loves doing Halloween activities with his kids and he sometimes dresses up as Batman. (Danny Moloshok / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Dad: Chris Elliot Daughters: Abby and Bridey Elliot Fun fact: Elliot’s daughter Abby, an “SNL” cast member, is known for her talented impressions of famous celebrities. Abby is the only “SNL” cast member whose father was also on the show. (Jason Szenes / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dad: Forest Whitaker Kids: Sonnet, True, Ocean and Autumn Whitaker Fun fact: Whitaker recorded a public service announcement with his daughter True for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in order to promote vegetarianism. (Fred Prouser / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Dad: Jamie Foxx Daughter: Corrine Foxx Fun fact: Foxx banned Corrine from dating after the paparazzi thought she was his new girlfriend when they were photographed together outside a restaurant. “She’s not going to date until she’s married,” he joked. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Dad: James Gandolfini Son: Michael Gandolfini Fun fact: In high school Gandolfini was named “best-looking.” (Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dad: Tom Hanks Son: Colin, Chester and Truman Hanks Fun fact: Colin is an actor like his father. His most famous movie was the 2002 teen hit “Orange County.” (Evan Agostini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dad: David Hasselhoff Daughters: Taylor-Ann and Hayley Amber Hasselhoff Fun Fact: Taylor Ann is an actor and singer. She has appeared on the TV hit “Baywatch” and also the Showtime movie “More Than Puppy Love.” (Angela Weiss / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Dad: Hugh Jackman Kids: Oscar and Ava Jackman Fun Fact: Jackman’s daughter Ava is an aspiring rock star. She likes to jam to heavy metal and says she’ll “be a mosh-pit girl.” (PacificCoastNews.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Dad: James Caan Kids: Tara, Scott, Alexander, James and Jacob Caan Fun Fact: Caan’s son Scott appeared in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.” (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Dad: Harvey Keitel Kids: Stella, Hudson and Roman Fun fact: Keitel once worked as a salesman at a women’s shoe store. (Peter Kramer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dad: Keith Urban Daughter: Sunday Urban Fun fact: Sunday used to be a lonely day for Urban. He and wife Nicole Kidman named their daughter Sunday because now that day of the week is a joyous one. (Arnaldo Magnani / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Dad: Lenny Kravitz Daughter: Zoe Kravitz Fun fact: Zoe is an actress and singer who has appeared in movies “The Brave One” and “No Reservations” with Hollywood stars Jodie Foster and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Lenny Kravitz is a distant cousin to Al Roker. (Kevin Mazur / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Dad: Larry Birkhead Daughter: Dannielynn Birkhead Fun fact: Birkhead was granted custody of Dannielynn in 2007 after a paternity test proved he fathered the child with late model Anna Nicole Smith. “She’s a happy baby, and we’re moving ahead,” Birkhead told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira. “We try to do the playdates like any other family.” (Charlie Riedel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Dad: Martin Lawrence Daughters: Jasmine Page, Lyanna and America Lawrence Fun fact: During school, his teachers would give Martin time at the end of class to make the other students laugh. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Dad: Denis Leary Kids: Jack and Devin Leary Fun fact: Leary fell in love with a Chihuahua he bought for his daughter. He now carries Coco around with him. (Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Dad: Lorenzo Lamas Kids: AJ, Alexandra, Victoria, Isabella and Shayne Lamas and Paton Ashbrook Fun fact: Lamas’ daughter Shayne was a contestant on “The Bachelor.” His son A.J. starred in “American Family.” (David Livingston / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Dad: Matthew McConaughey Kids: Vida and Levi Alves McConaughey Fun fact: The actor is a big supporter of exposing his children to travel. “Culture and travel’s been the best education I’ve had in my life and my child’s going to have that, hopefully,” he told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira. (Fame Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Dad: Eric McCormack Son: Finnigan Holden McCormack Fun fact: McCormack and wife Janet named their son Finnigan after the puppet in the 1967 movie “Mr. Dressup.” (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Dad: Jack Nicholson Kids: Lorraine, Raymond and Jennifer Nicholson, Honey Hollman and Caleb Goodard Fun fact: Nicholson was raised by his grandmother after his father abandoned him and he thought his grandmother was his real mother. The truth was revealed years later during a Rolling Stone interview. (Bobby Bank / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Dad: Richie Sambora Daughter: Ava Sambora Fun fact: Ava made her runway debut in the 2010 White Trash Beautiful show, which kicked off LA Fashion Week in Los Angeles. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Dad: Ricky Martin Sons: Matteo and Valentino Martin Fun fact: Martin became the father to twin boys in 2008 via a gestational surrogate. (Pablo Alfaro / Courtesy of Ricky Martin via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Dad: Gavin Rossdale Sons: Kingston and Zuma Rossdale Fun fact: Rossdale’s son Kingston is named after Kingston, Jamaica. (PacificCoastNews.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Dad: Tim Roth Sons: Jack, Timothy, Cormac Roth Fun fact: Roth enjoys a quiet life at home with his wife and sons. He said he'd rather stay away from the Hollywood scene of parties and nightlife. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Dad: Russell Crowe Sons: Charles and Tennyson Crowe Fun Fact: When Crowe’s wife became pregnant with Charles, they gave up drinking alcohol together. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Dad: Bob Saget Daughters: Aubrey, Lara and Jennifer Saget Fun fact: Saget is known for his R-rated humor. He often told inappropriate jokes on the set of “Full House” in front of the young actresses who played his daughters on the show. (Bryan Bedder / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Dad: Liev Schreiber Sons: Sasha and Samuel Schreiber Fun fact: When asked about a third child, Schreiber and wife Naomi Watts said they’d only have another one if they could guarantee a baby girl. (Arnaldo Magnani / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Dad: Tony Shalhoub Daughters: Josie Lynn and Sophie Shalhoub Fun fact: Shalhoub and his wife, actress Brooke Adams, are currently starring in the Broadway musical “Lend Me a Tenor.” (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Dad: Seal Kids: Henry, Johan, Lou and Leni Klum Fun fact: Of her husband Seal, supermodel Heidi Klum told US magazine: "I will always want to be not only his wife, mother of his children and his best friend, but also his hot girl who keeps making effort to be attractive and fun." (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Dad: Paul Simon Kids: Adrian, Lulu and Gabriel and Harper Simon Fun fact: Simon’s song “Father and Daughter” tells of a father’s love for his daughter and is written from Simon’s point of view. (Kathy Willens / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Dad: Tobey Maguire Kids: Ruby Sweetheart and Otis Tobias Maguire Fun fact: Maguire told People magazine after the birth his first child, “I love being a dad. It’s amazing. It’s like everybody says, all the clichés are true. It’s indescribable.” (Chris Wolf / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Dad: Tom Cruise Kids: Isabella, Connor and Suri Cruise Fun fact: Isabella and Connor were adopted by Cruise and his second wife, Nicole Kidman; Suri is his daughter with third wife Katie Holmes. "I'll never forget the moment I became a dad," Tom Cruise said to Esquire magazine. "It's hard to describe that level of responsibility, the desire to give such joy. And the clarity; nothing is more important than this." (AFP - Getty Images, Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Dad: John Travolta Kids: Ella and Jett Travolta Fun fact: John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston announced in May 2010 that they are expecting a child after trying for several years. (Fred Prouser / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Dad: Pete Wentz Son: Bronx Mowgli Wentz Fun fact: Wentz and wife Ashlee Simpson named their first son Bronx Mowgli after the ornery main character in “The Jungle Book.” (Paul Hiffmeyer / Disneyland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Dad: Will Smith Kids: Trey Willard III, Jaden Christopher Syre, Willow Camille Reign Smith Fun fact: In 2006, Smith co-starred with his son Jaden in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Smith plays a struggling salesman living on the street and trying to take care of his son (Jaden). (Michael Buckner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Dad: Robin Williams Kids: Zachary, Zelda, Cody Williams Fun fact: Williams says fatherhood was a reason he stopped drinking. He wanted to be aware and awake during his children’s lives. (Katy Winn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Dad: Bruce Willis Daughters: Rumer, Scout and Tallulah Willis Fun fact: In 2004, Willis hosted a two-hour television special in which he talked about the problem with fathers in America: They aren’t present in one out of four homes. (Nina Prommer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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