It’s Fathers’ Day, which means the internet is swarming with ads for power tools and sporting equipment, all of which share space with pithy articles talking about the greatest fathers in media.
I’ve noticed, though, that most of the memes which list great screen dads tend to stick with the stuff that’s so old it doesn’t even play on Nick at Night, or even TV Land any more. Not that I’m knocking Mike Brady, but I wasn’t even born when The Brady Bunch began, and not yet four when the final episode aired.
Besides, aside from a period when I wanted Scotty from Star Trek to be my father, the TV fathers (and father figures) I responded to were hardly cookie-cutter parents. The TV dads I grew up with included Charles Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie), Steven Keaton (Family Ties) and Bill Cosby (The Cosby Show) but lately, I’ve come to realize that there are some great screen fathers (and father figures) from this century.
Who are they? Well, here are five of my favorites:
Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen – The West Wing)
In addition to being the father of Ellie, Lizzie, and Zoey, Jed Bartlet also had this little job as President of the United States. It’s true that two of his three daughters were living independent lives, but he still had to balance country and family, with scales that were just a bit more particular than those measuring other fathers.
As well, Zoey was going to school at Georgetown University for part of the series, and living in the White House a good chunk of the time as well, which meant a lot more hands-on parenting, as in the scene where the president explains to his daughter why she’s got to have extra security:
“My getting killed would be bad enough, but that is not the nightmare scenario. The nightmare scenario, sweetheart, is you getting kidnapped. You go out to a bar or a party in some club and you get up to go to the restroom and somebody comes from behind and puts their hand across your mouth and whisks you out the back door. You’re so petrified you don’t even notice the bodies of a few Secret Service agents lying on the ground with bullet holes in their heads. Then you’re whisked away in a car. It’s a big party with lots of noise and lots of people coming and going, and it’s a half hour before someone says, “Hey, where’s Zoey?” Another fifteen minutes before the first phone call. It’s another hour and a half before anyone even *thinks* to shut down all the airports. Now we’re off to the races. You’re tied to a chair in a cargo shack somewhere in the middle of Uganda and I am told that I have 72 hours to get Israel to free 460 terrorist prisoners. So I’m on the phone pleading with Be Yabin and he’s saying: “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but Israel simply does not negotiate with terrorists, period. It’s the only way we can survive.” So now we got a new problem because this country no longer has a Commander-in-chief, it has a father who’s out of his mind because his little girl is in a shack somewhere in Uganda with a gun to her head. Do you get it?”
Lucas “Luke” Danes (played by Scott Patterson – Gilmore Girls)
Luke isn’t actually Rory Gilmore’s father. In fact, during the course of the show, he never officially becomes her stepfather. Nevertheless, he is the reigning father figure in Rory’s life, attending family parties and events (like her high school graduation) even before he and her mother, Lorelai tried dating.
Later, of course, he essentially raises his nephew Jess, and then he finds out he has a daughter of his own, April, but when it comes to parenting, Rory was really Luke’s ‘first’ child…and he even goes up against Rory’s biological father, Christopher, to demonstrate it:
“Oh, really? Well, where the hell where you when she had the chicken pox and would only eat mashed potatoes for a week? Or when she graduated high school and started college, huh? Where the hell were you when I was moving her mattress into her dorm and out of her dorm and back into her dorm?”
Burt Hummel (played by Mike O’Malley – Glee)
I knew from the start that Burt was a pretty special guy, raising Kurt alone, and supporting his son’s interests even when he didn’t understand them, but what sold me – and most of the viewing public – on Burt is this quotation from the episode “Theatricality,” where he busts his soon-to-be stepson, Finn, on the latter’s use of the word ‘faggy.’
“I know what you meant! What, you think I didn’t use that word when I was your age? You know, some kid gets clocked in practice we tell him to stop being such a fag, shake it off. We meant it exactly the way you meant it. That being gay is wrong. That’s some kind of punishable offense. I really thought you were different, Finn. You know, I thought that being in Glee Club, and being raised by your mom, meant that you were some, you know, new generation of dude who saw things differently. Who just kinda, you know, came into the world knowing what it’s taken me years of struggling to figure out. I guess I was wrong. I’m sorry Finn, but you can’t, you can’t stay here.”
Jonathan Kent (played by John Schneider – Smallville)
It can’t be easy, being the adoptive father of a future superhero, but it was always clear that Jonathan was parenting Clark and that the eventual Superman was the mask – a flip of the conventional version of the story. As Clark aged and began developing his powers, Jonathan’s life got a lot more difficult, but he still tried his best to answer every challenge with grace and wisdom, as in this quotation:
“Look, Clark, I’m your father. I’m supposed to have all the answers. It kills me that I don’t, but you gotta have faith that we’ll figure this thing out together.”
Keith Mars (played by Enrico Colantoni – Veronica Mars)
Another single father, Keith Mars is a bit grittier than the average television dad, but there’s never a doubt that he’s Veronica’s greatest ally, even when he has to choose being a parent over being a friend. Personally, I think their relationship is one of the best father-daughter relationships ever put on screen. Moreover, it’s obvious that Veronica shares his sense of humor, as well as his detective skills, as seen in this exchange from the second season.
Keith: So, senior year. How was your first day at school honey?
Veronica: Great! I beat up a freshman, stole his lunch money and then skipped out after lunch.
Keith: What, no pre-marital sex?
Veronica: Oh, yea… yes. But don’t worry dad, I swear you’re gonna like these guys.
Keith: That’s my girl.
Veronica: I missed you.
Keith: [While they hug] I missed you too. Now, where is my turkey pot-pie, woman?
These are just a few of my favorite “screen dads,” and while they’re no longer entirely contemporary, I think all of them are, at least, more relatable to modern audiences than the fathers in those older shows – even if we (well, I) still watch them when I’m flipping channels and they happen to be on.
Note: This piece originally appeared in the e-zine All Things Girl on 15 June 2014, but the original link is referenced but not archived at the internet archive.