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Top 5 TV Dads of the 80's

The term “Sitcom Dad” is thrown around with a lot of cynicism these days. People derisively snort at the idea of a father that is involved in the lives of his kids and shares fortune cookie sized bits of wisdom with them at just the right moment. We’ve definitely become more jaded since the 1980's flooded our TV watching hours with these pop culture patriarchs, but I think deep down we still wish they were around. So today let me present to you my picks for the Top 5 TV Dads of the 80’s.

Charles -Charles In Charge

OK, this first one is kind of in the gray area, since Charles was not the actual father of the kids he acted as live-in male nanny for, but Scott Baio’s loveable college student certainly filled that male authority figure role throughout the series that ran from 1984-1990. Even during the first season when the Pembroke kids had their dad in the house, most of their life lessons came from Charles. If Douglas, Lila or Jason needed consoling after losing at sports or advice on how to talk to the opposite sex they went straight to the 19 year old who somehow had the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. I have to believe that’s why when the show was re-vamped for syndication in Season 2 they moved-in the Powell family whose father was a naval officer stationed thousands of miles away.

Now Charles could continue to be the voice of reason for Jamie, Sarah and Adam without being contradicted. I mean he had to be since Walter the aging Grandpa seemed to fly through the house to make a clever quip, but rarely offered helpful advice and the Mom was really only there to say the kids weren’t being totally abandoned when Charles was off on his many skiing, spring break or Hawaiian adventures. I think Charles actually benefited from being younger since the kids felt like he really understood where they were coming from, plus anyone would look like a genius standing next to Buddins “Buddy” Lembeck.

Jack Arnold – The Wonder Years

A throwback to the 1960’s when Dad’s truly were the “man of the house”, The Wonder Years focused on the adventures of Kevin Arnold, but the character that always stood out to me was his Dad, Jack, played by Dan Lauria. He was the classic blue-collar worker type, always in a button down short sleeve shirt, worrying about money and helping his kids see the reality of the world with some gruff common sense. Though he often came off as a grump, Jack always showed how much he loved his family.

In one episode Jack got a promotion that allowed him to buy his wife the new oven/cooking range she had been dreaming about since their old one broke, but it also meant he had to travel on business and most alarmingly on Thanksgiving. Though it cost him more money, he took the first flight back after his meeting to join his family on that special day. On some shows he would have resigned from the position triumphantly and spent the whole day gobbling up turkey with no discussion of the consequences, but I like that The Wonder Years showed a more responsible and realistic outcome. Jack still needed the job to provide for his family and so he made the best arrangement he could given their situation.

Steven Keaton – Family Ties

Though he didn’t really gain any fatherly respect from me until growing a beard in season 2, Michael Gross as Steven Keaton on Family Ties was the ultimate example of the laid back, but responsible Dad. A grown-up Hippy with Liberal leanings, he had his hands full with Michael J. Fox’s ultra-conservative and Reagan idolizing Alex P. Keaton, but always managed to talk some sense into the brash, young republican and his 2 sisters (and eventually younger brother). When faced with his kids poor decisions or desires, Mr. Keaton’s attitude always seemed to be, “Are you sure that’s the best thing for you?”

Rather than forcing his kids to do things his way, he caused them to think about the consequences and help them make it through the aftermath with loving support. I was always impressed how Steven and his wife, Elyse managed to stand together as a couple and counsel their kids on topics such as higher-education, death and pre-marital sex without coming off as overbearing know-it-alls. It’s no wonder I think back on Steven Keaton fondly with a light and airy, Sha-na-na-naaaa.

Cliff Huxtable – The Cosby Show

How could he not make the list? Defining Dad fashion with his sweater assortment alone should earn him the #2 spot, but there’s so much more to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show, than a few wild patterns. Not only did Cliff provide helpful advice to his kids on those Very Special Episodes, but he also took an active interest in their hobbies and interests. Like the time he got Theo to integrate his love of rap into a school assignment or Rudy joining the football team, he knew his kids and supported them in a way that meant something to them personally.

I also thought it was interesting how Dr. Huxtable provided marriage advice to his oldest daughter Sondra and her husband, Elvin. Usually sitcom Dad’s are dealing with the hijinks of their younger kids who still live at home, but I appreciate how The Cosby Show made it clear that being a Dad or parent in general is a lifelong pursuit. Eventually he got to celebrate being a grandfather when a tiny Raven Symone showed up on the scene as Olivia. A lot of people consider this “Jumping the Shark”, but I choose to see it as the evolution of fatherly responsibilities.

Danny Tanner – Full House

Sure Bob Saget’s Danny Tanner had 2 live-in buddies to help him raise his 3 spunky daughters, but when the chips were down, it was the pleasant and proper host of Wake Up San Francisco who arrived on the scene to save the day.  While most single Dad sitcoms would focus on the total inability of the character to run a household without a housewife mother to keep him on track, Danny Tanner was a true Mr. Mom. Not only could he show concern over what boys D.J. was dating or teach Stephanie how to throw a baseball, he could also mop and scrub with the best of ‘em!

Danny’s OCD cleanliness became a punchline for most of the show’s run, but when that sappy keyboard music played, you knew he was about to hit you with some sincere life lessons. Though the melodrama of those moments seems ridiculous in retrospect, there is a sweetness that can’t be denied in a Dad who takes the time to sensitively deal with his daughter’s worries about the world around them. Bob Sagat gets extra points for being a behind the scenes Dad as well. In many interviews I’ve read with the cast, they talk about how the former host of America’s Funniest Home Videos was often called as a source of support for his TV daughters even 20+ years after the show went off the air.

So those are my picks for the best TV Dads, who were some of your favorites?

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Mr Magic Posted on Mar 21, 2015 at 12:06 AM

I actually pick Bob Saget as the host of America's Funniest Home Videos over his Danny Tanner character anyday.

Vaporman87 Posted on Mar 20, 2015 at 10:42 PM

Yeah, Danny was not a humorous character. More of a straight, squeaky clean type who helped keep the others grounded.

Mr Magic Posted on Mar 20, 2015 at 08:37 PM

Danny wasn't the funniest of TV dads, but he was sincere and loving to his daughters, which are key elements to being a good father. But is it wrong to be committed to cleanliness? Yes, it is. We all have to draw the line somewhere.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Mar 19, 2015 at 02:55 AM

@Vaporman87 there was a Dad on The Hogan Family? I only caught it sporadically during the Sandy Duncan Years, but I could have sworn it was about a widow raising her boys. That's crazy.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Mar 19, 2015 at 02:38 AM

@everybody All good suggestions. I considered Mr. Drummond and even Mrs. Garret (who spun off from Diff'rrent Strokes to The Facts of Life) as sort of a gender-bias challenging option, but in the end I had to go with the Dads I knew best. Jason Seaver (played by Alan Thicke, who wrote the theme songs to both previously mentioned shows) never really had a chance, he was just too cool for school to register as a Dad to me. I actually went back and forth between Dan from Roseanne and Mr. Arnold a lot, but a Dad from the 60s portrayed in the 80s was just too iconic to pass up. As for Tony, he gets points for having a hot daughter, but I never learned any parenting skills from the man.

OldSchool80s Posted on Mar 19, 2015 at 01:39 AM

Enjoyed the list. I like considering a non-traditional Dad like Charles in Charge, but I don't think he or Mr. Arnold would make my top 5. I agree that I would add Mr. Drummond from Diff'rent Strokes. I think you have to consider Jason Seaver from Growing Pains and Tony from Who's the Boss. I would consider Edward Stratton from Silver Spoons as well as the two guys from My Two Dads. How about Mr. Cunningham from Happy Days and Dan Connor from Roseanne? It's hard to leave any of those off of the list.

vkimo Posted on Mar 18, 2015 at 11:57 PM

Not the 80s, but Ward Cleaver was a stand up dad.

Vaporman87 Posted on Mar 18, 2015 at 07:29 PM

This is a really great list, and a hard one to formulate. There were so many great father figures in 80's sitcoms.

I would say, I agree with this list with one exception... I believe I would replace Charles with Mr. Drummond, who not only had to teach and raise 3 children on his own, but two of them were black. That equated to a whole lot of opportunities for trouble and he always handled that pressure graciously.

Not to mention one of those two black boys was Arnold, who was ALWAYS looking to get into some kind of mess.

One who gets very little attention, but I always thought was a really great dad was Michael Hogan (The Hogan Family), who managed to keep a lid on the 3 boys he had and deal with the death of his wife (actually the lead character of the show in the beginning until she was fired after the second season because Valerie Harper was holding out for more money).

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