Desi Arnaz ties Richard Keith's bowtie in an episode of 'I Love Lucy' called 'The Ricardos Visit Cuba.'

15 unforgettable father figures in TV

Written by:
June 13, 2023
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15 unforgettable father figures in TV

Television has a way of both reflecting the current culture and influencing it. Sometimes TV shows dramatize aspects of real life to comment on current events or teach a lesson. Other times they play on real-world scenarios for pure entertainment value and laughs. The reverse is true as well. Research indicates viewers can be impacted differently by what they watch. Various studies have shown TV can affect how we think and even impact cognitive ability—both positively and negatively, depending on the type of programming.

On-screen parenting is one example of this phenomenon. The way fathers have been portrayed on TV has evolved over the years alongside cultural norms. Wholesome 1950s fathers like Robert Young (Jim Anderson) in "Father Knows Best" are a far cry from heartless dads like Logan Roy (Brian Cox) in HBO's contemporary hit "Succession." One might hope, however, that the influences on real-life American fathers are more like the former than the latter.

Stacker compiled a list of 15 of the most unforgettable father figures in television history, from the most lovable to the most cringe-inducing, using information from IMDb and a variety of media outlets. Read on to find out which fictional fathers made the cut and what makes each one uniquely memorable.

Danny Tanner, 'Full House'

The late Bob Saget's stand-up comedy routines may have included a lot of crude humor, but his role in the late '80s/early '90s sitcom "Full House" is arguably one of the most beloved, wholesome fathers in TV history.

For eight seasons—plus another five when the show was rebooted over two decades later as "Fuller House"—Saget played Danny Tanner, a widower raising three daughters with the help of his zany best friend (Dave Coulier) and rocker brother-in-law (John Stamos). Full of life lessons and laughs, this dad is always there for his girls with a warm hug, good advice, and appropriate consequences to help teach them right from wrong.

Philip Banks, 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'

The early '90s series "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" was groundbreaking in its exploration and portrayal of Black fatherhood. Philip Banks (James Avery)—better known to viewers as Uncle Phil—becomes a father figure to his nephew Will (Will Smith), who is sent from Philadelphia to live with the Banks family in the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air. One of the show's most memorable episodes comes toward the end of Season 4 when Will is disappointed by his biological father, prompting Uncle Phil to step in with overwhelming love and support.

Ward Cleaver, 'Leave It to Beaver'

When you think of quintessential 1950s and '60s family sitcoms, "Leave It to Beaver" tops the list. For over 230 episodes, Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) heads a seemingly perfect middle-class household with a beautiful wife and two all-American sons. Although his youngest son, Beaver (Jerry Mathers), gets into plenty of trouble, Ward consistently provides firm guidance without losing his patience. There's even an episode titled "The Perfect Father"!

Carl Winslow, 'Family Matters'

For nine seasons, "Family Matters" was a cornerstone of ABC's Friday night "TGIF" programming, in no small part due to the show's patriarch, Carl Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson). Viewers may recall the Chicago cop's comical irritation with annoying neighbor Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), but he also has many memorable moments as a supportive father—like the Season 5 episode where he stands up to fellow officers when his son experiences racial profiling. This character remains so beloved that VelJohnson was hired by insurance company Progressive to star as "TV Dad"—satirizing his "Family Matters" role—in a series of 2023 commercials.

Ricky Ricardo, 'I Love Lucy'

"I Love Lucy" may be best known for the ridiculous situations Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) finds herself in; however, Ricky Ricardo (Ball's real-life husband, Desi Arnaz) steals more than a few scenes as father to Little Ricky.

Perhaps the most heartwarming moment on the show occurs before the baby even arrives: In an iconic episode, Ricky is too busy for Lucy to tell him she is pregnant, so she surprises him with an announcement in front of the crowd at his nightclub. As Little Ricky grows up, the show features many more tender moments, including Ricky sharing his Cuban heritage with his son—a groundbreaking TV moment in the 1950s—and teaching him to play the drums.

Louis Huang, 'Fresh Off the Boat'

"Fresh Off the Boat," a popular ABC comedy that ran for six seasons from 2015 to 2020, is loosely based on the life of chef Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) and his memoir of the same name. Actor Randall Park took on the role of Eddie's father, Louis Huang, intending to make a show that represents the Asian community without leaning on oft-used racist humor or stereotypes. Louis is committed to supporting his family, moving them from Washington D.C. to Florida to open a restaurant, and throughout the series, he teaches Eddie many important life lessons about the value of hard work.

Tim Taylor, 'Home Improvement'

The 1990s sitcom "Home Improvement" stars comedian Tim Allen as Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor: husband, father to three boys, and host of the do-it-yourself show "Tool Time." This often misogynistic TV dad is well-known for his alpha-male grunting and constant calls for "more power," which often end hilariously in disaster or injury. Yet behind the exaggerated macho facade, Tim truly cares for his family, often seeking advice to help guide his sons from his neighbor beyond the fence, Wilson (Earl Hindman).

Fred G. Sanford, 'Sanford and Son'

For 135 episodes, Redd Foxx played Fred G. Sanford—a grumpy but loving dad who runs salvage yards with his son—on the classic 1970s comedy "Sanford and Son." This father's over-the-top demeanor and constant shenanigans endlessly frustrate his level-headed offspring Lamont (Demond Wilson).

One line, in particular, lives on in the annals of TV history: Holding his chest while feigning a heart attack, Fred frequently calls out to his dead wife: "This is the big one, Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join you!" in an effort to draw sympathy from an irritated Lamont. While Fred was far from perfect—with lines that make contemporary crowds cringe—the show made inroads for Black television actors.

Johnny Rose, 'Schitt's Creek'

Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) may not start off as the most actively engaged father to children David (Eugene's real-life son, Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy) on "Schitt's Creek," but he makes up for it in time. The Rose family is used to living the high life until they must move to the small town of Schitt's Creek after losing their fortune. Forced to adapt to these new circumstances, Johnny Rose's basic life skills and values grow exponentially across six hilarious, heartfelt seasons as he learns that family and friends are truly the most important things in life.

Walter White, 'Breaking Bad'

Sometimes good people do bad things—like manufacture and distribute methamphetamine, in the case of AMC's acclaimed series "Breaking Bad." When straight-laced high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) learns he has terminal lung cancer, he goes to increasingly drastic (and dangerous) lengths to provide his wife and son a secure future. While selling drugs is not the best example to set for a child, White's actions are driven by his love for his family—at least until the criminal world begins to change him into a power-hungry new man.

Archie Bunker, 'All in the Family'

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable fathers in TV history, even though he doesn't rank among the most patient or open-minded. In over 200 episodes of "All in the Family," Bunker sits in his favorite living room chair, arguing with family and friends about controversial topics not often broached on 1970s television shows. Although the character is rude and politically incorrect, this was an intentional decision made by showrunners "to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns" in an effort to demonstrate "just how absurd they are," as the show's opening credits claim.

George Bluth Sr., 'Arrested Development'

George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), head of the family on "Arrested Development," is a self-centered and remorseless man, lacking any true sense of familial affection or obligation. Not only is he locked up for tax evasion at the beginning of the series, but his son Michael (Jason Bateman) also discovers he was secretly in business with Saddam Hussein. Despite ongoing dysfunction across five seasons, Michael steps in to somehow lead the family and guide his own son, George Michael (Michael Cera), in a way George Sr. never could.

Tony Soprano, 'The Sopranos'

"The Sopranos," a show about New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano's (James Gandolfini) personal and professional life, was one of HBO's top dramas from 1999 until 2007. Although Tony loves his two children, A.J. (Robert Iler) and Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), he has a different way of showing it than most dads—like by having his daughter's boyfriend killed. Despite this tendency toward violence and frequent absenteeism, Tony believes in one thing above all others: "Family: they're the only ones you can depend on."

Al Bundy, 'Married… with Children'

Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) is perhaps one of the most cantankerous fathers in television history, unhappy with everything from his job to his family. Al's resentful attitude, along with other character flaws like an obvious disdain for women, is used as fodder for jokes throughout 11 seasons of "Married… with Children"—and let's not forget his trademark pose on the living room sofa, sitting with legs spread and a hand down his pants at the end of a long day. While this crude humor was accepted when the show premiered in 1987, it is often deemed offensive in retrospect—and Al definitely isn't winning any awards for Best TV Dad.

Eli Pope, 'Scandal'

Eli Pope (also known as Rowan) is one of the evilest parents ever seen on TV, manipulating others and doing whatever it takes—even killing the president's son—to achieve his twisted objectives on "Scandal."

However, actor Joe Morton argues his character's actions are well-intentioned to benefit both the country and his daughter, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who runs her own crisis management agency in Washington D.C. This may be true; perhaps Olivia never would rise to the heights she achieves across the show's 124 episodes without Rowan's fatherly advice—which also calls out the blatant racism in America—that "you have to be twice as good to get half as much."

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

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