Almost everything I know about being a father, I learned from television.
No disrespect to my own dad, who I have always loved and have a good relationship with now. But when I was growing up 30 years ago in Gary, Ind., he was the guy who managed a few in-person meetings a year; usually outings to buy school clothes or take in a ballgame.
As an only child raised by a single mother, my best option to experience a masculine presence in the house, day in and day out, was nestled in the small screen.
I've seen some great pieces about how modern television is gorging on the bumbling of single fathers. But in truth, excepting certain unflappable TV dads from the '50s and '60s, fatherhood has always been a tale of amusement at male cluelessness, from Desi Arnaz's empty machoisms to Archie Bunker's cartoonish prejudice and Homer Simpson's breathtaking boneheadedness.
But it's also provided Mike Brady's easygoing confidence on the Brady Bunch and Steven Keaton's earnest lefty understanding on Family Ties. So perhaps it's a bit of a wash.
With that in mind, I humbly offer a short list of the TV dads who have taught me the most as I struggle to raise four children of my own. My kids have certainly turned out much better than I have any right to expect, so maybe I learned a little more than I realized.
Dad No. 5: James Evans Sr. (John Amos), Good Times. He only stuck around for the first season, but Amos was the first actor I saw on TV who was like the dads in my neighbors' homes. Working class with strict values, he made sure his kids knew the importance of a good work ethic, getting an education and getting out of the projects. He taught the importance of sacrifice for your kids so they can excel, proving you can be tough and loving at the same time.
Dad No. 4: Tom Corbett (Bill Bixby) The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Not often referenced these days, Bixby's Corbett was a widowed magazine publisher raising his 6-year-old son. The combination of middle class wealth and an attentive dad was irresistible to me, a TV nerd who caught the show in reruns when I was just a few years older than Eddie Corbett. Here I first saw the power of a dad paying attention, a lesson I'm still trying to figure out today.
Dad No. 3: Ray Barone (Ray Romano) Everybody Loves Raymond. Romano's Barone probably comes closest to how I see myself as a father; well meaning, often clueless but occasionally gifted with the searing insight that everyone on this ride is just short of crazy. And some of the arguments he has as a dad and husband — exactly who should unpack the last suitcase after vacation? — feel lifted right from my life. Ray taught me that, despite my ignorance on fatherhood stuff, many of my problems were shared by everybody else trying to pull this off.
Dad No. 2: Dan Conner (John Goodman) Roseanne. Strip away all the specifics, and Roseanne was the story of a working class family led by a strong woman and an understated man. My own wife — way cooler and saner than Roseanne Conner — has a similarly strong will. Figuring out how to be true to yourself as a partner and father while teamed with an equally strong woman was something Goodman's Dan Conner handled pretty well.
Dad No. 1: Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) The Cosby Show. If Good Times' James Evans led his household with a physical intensity, Cosby's Cliff Huxtable deployed a genial, occasionally pointed wit toward the same result. Phylicia Rashad's Clair Huxtable was the no-nonsense enforcer, allowing Cliff to play peacemaker and clown, even in tense times.
Teaching through good humor and good example was the biggest lesson here; evidence that no matter how tough a gig parenting becomes, your best backup is a wide smile and an open heart.