Deaths of Tom Bosley and Barbara Billingsley herald aging of two generations' TV parents
My first thought on hearing Tom Bosley had passed away today at age 83: Mr. C has left us all.
That's because his classic role as Ritchie Cunningham's dad on the '70s-era TV series Happy Days was the culmination of a career's worth of cuddly father roles -- turning Bosley into a trusted father figure for a generation of fans.
It brings a pang of sad realization -- geez, was Mr. C really THAT old? -- that another generation felt last week when news broke that Leave It to Beaver star Barbara Billingsley had died at age 94. Suddenly, two of the actors seen as the embodiment of ideal TV parenting are gone, and we're left with vague echoes of the loss that comes from seeing a trusted figure leave our lives.
In such awful coincidences, we are reminded of time's march -- a fact that's easy to forget when an eightysomething Betty White is cracking jokes on Saturday Night Live or 76-year-old Florence Henderson is twirling through a routine on Dancing with the Stars.
But our TV moms and dads are getting on in years, people. We're going to have a lot more painful goodbyes coming. And a lot more painful reminders of our own mortality, which we can avoid through a steady diet of reruns and retrospectives.
Bosley was a tough one. Not only did he play the ultimate '50s dad on Happy Days, he was a different kind of patriarch on The Father Dowling Mysteries, where he played a crime-solving cleric. He had already been a television fixture for decades, appearing everywhere from The Love Boat to Mission Impossible in a string of roles that followed an early career on the stage.
A Jewish Chicago native who somehow wound up playing a Catholic priest and the ultimate Presbyterian dad, Bosley's friendly voice and aw shucks manner grounded many of his best performances. He pulled it off so well, Howard Cunningham landed in 9th place on TV Guide's list of TV's greatest dads; a part he nearly turned down in a show spun off from a episode of the anthology series Love, American Style.
Billingsley, a film actress who found TV immortality as June Cleaver, was one of the last surviving actors from the family sitcoms which were popular in the 1950s, including Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
In the same way those characters helped mold the ideal image of suburban parenting and families for one generation, Bosley and shows such as The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch and even Good Times helped shape a different generation's ideas of what family meant and could be.
We all know loss is a part of life. But this child of TV is feeling particularly bereft right about now.