Fatherhood is a learn-as-you-go undertaking. There are so many unknowns, yet we expect dads to have all the answers. So, where do fathers come up with their wisdom? There’s life experience, of course, but TV and movie dads provide a lot, too.
As the father of two boys, I have enjoyed the knowledge passed down from small and big-screen dads. I may not have known it before having kids, but now that I am awash in a world of fart jokes, shoes scattered all over the house and tantrums over lost games of Wiffle ball, I see these proud papas have taught me life lessons.
Jack Arnold — “The Wonder Years”
A cynic would say that the idealism and dreams of youth eventually give way to reality and responsibility. While we don’t know much about Jack Arnold’s younger years, we do know the “The Wonder Years” dad was bogged down by life while working a thankless 9-5 job to support his family.
“I get up at 5 in the morning. I fight traffic. I bust my hump all day. I fight traffic again. And I come home. Then I pay my taxes. The end,” Jack once grimly summed up to Kevin. It was my first education that adulting can be a grind. The episode where Kevin goes to work with him is also a classic for anyone who’s ever wondered, “What exactly does my dad do?”
Jim Walsh — “Beverly Hills, 90210”
He doesn’t get nearly the love as everyone else on the Fox drama, which is fitting for a dad — be a provider, but never get the glory. Was there ever an episode where Brenda and Brandon didn’t yell at him? No, they were teens doing what teens do. Despite that, he always remained by their side and did what a good father does: Looking after his own kids and helping out their friends (witness his handling of Dylan’s finances).
And his complicated relationship with Dylan and how Brenda always pushed back against him underscored something truly important: You won’t always like the people in your children’s lives and your kids may hate you on occasion, but sometimes you have to be the enemy to do what’s best for them.
Steven Keaton — “Family Ties”
A liberal who came of age in the ‘60s, Steven’s mettle was often tested by his hardcore Republican son, Alex, brilliantly played by Michael J. Fox. All dads envision the ways their kids will grow up, but children have minds of their own and we have to continue to support them. Steven’s love for his son never wavered and he was always there for him, politics be damned. It wasn’t just the dynamic with Alex that made Steven so relatable, though. He possessed the gentility dads sometimes require, always offering a sympathetic ear and a kind word when his kids needed him most.
Murray Goldberg — “The Goldbergs”
Murray’s goal on the ABC comedy is modest on the surface. He longs to get home, take off his pants and lounge in front of the TV while dodging his “moron” children. Once you have kids, you realize that time to yourself is as elusive as the socks that go missing in the washing machine.
Each day is an exhausting adventure littered with fires that parents have to put out — a child gets hurt, a child gets into trouble at school, a child forgets to do his homework. It doesn’t end, no matter how much we want it to, and, by the time our day winds down, we are often deprived of the sliver of joy that we seek, whether it’s watching TV like Murray or whatever else you may fancy.
Martin Crane — “Frasier”
The late John Mahoney deftly portrayed blue-collar Martin Crane, who was often at odds with his snooty sons, Frasier and Niles. Sometimes you think you know more than your dad, especially when you’ve grown up, but Martin reminded us that father still knows best, no matter how old you may be or smart you think you are.
Jack Pearson — “This Is Us”
Milo Ventimiglia’s Jack has set the bar high — too high. Just when I think I’m doing a good job as a father, I watch “This Is Us” and discover that I have a long way to go. Is there nothing this guy can’t do? He stands head and shoulders above everyone else and should serve notice that we can always do better.
Clark Griswold — “National Lampoon's Vacation”
While Jack Pearson should make all dads feel badly about themselves, Clark Griswold should make us all feel good because he is the embodiment of that moment when you realize your dad doesn’t know everything. Chevy Chase’s well-intentioned but bumbling Clark in the “National Lampoon Vacation” franchise highlights the universal truth that dads are not perfect.
The ultimate family man desperately trying to give his wife and kids the memories he thinks they need before the children leave the house, his intentions are noble, while his methods are questionable. There are loads of times when dads feel like they have no idea what they’re doing, just like Clark, who does his best not to let the family know he’s at a loss.
Daniel Hillard — “Mrs. Doubtfire”
All dads are willing to go the extra mile, just like Robin Williams did that in "Mrs. Doubtfire" when he put on a disguise to become a caretaker to his children. While the antics of Mrs. Doubtfire stole the film, the lesson carries on: There are no limits for the love we have for our little ones.
“I’m addicted to my children, sir,” he told a judge in one scene. “I love them with all my heart and the idea of someone telling me I can’t be with them, I can’t see them every day, that’s like someone saying I can’t have air. I can’t live without air and I can’t live without them.”
Gil Buckman — “Parenthood”
Raising a child is anxiety-inducing. Gil, played by Steve Martin in the 1989 movie, represents all of our concerns. He worries that he’s not a good father and is stressed that his kids' behavioral problems are his fault. Insecurity as parents is normal. Gil showed vulnerability and that dads can’t always fix things with ease. And that’s OK.