In the early 1970’s my father, sister and I used to huddle around a portable, black and white television set on Thursday nights to watch The Waltons over dinner. My teenage sister eventually fell out of the habit but my father and I stayed loyal fans every week until I left for college in 1976. The Waltons had eleven family members under one roof which included seven children, the parents and grandparents. The great stories and acting felt believable to me, and none so much as Ralph Waite who died last month, as the loving and pragmatic father who refused to go to church. His obituary in the New York Times wrote…
…Always he was John Walton, the paternal voice of wisdom. He remembered a woman approaching him in a crowd and saying she had been poor as a child and had thought of him as her father. “I went to school and college because of you,” he recalled her saying. “She said, ‘Now I’m a lawyer, and I don’t think I would be if I hadn’t seen that show,’ ” Mr. Waite said. “I’m still amazed by that. It happens all the time.”
As I read this, I immediately related to the sentiment. I never thought of John Walton as my father but that didn’t mean I didn’t see my father on TV, and often.
In September of 1965, when I was seven, my father’s likeness appeared in two television
series: Green Acres and Gidget. My friends told me that my father looked just like Eddie Arnold, and although I wouldn’t say he was a spitting image, there was a strong resemblance and I thought so too. But the character of Oliver Douglas was a cranky and frustrated lawyer trying to become a farmer while living with his exotic wife in a shack down South. Not what I wanted in a father so I pretended the actor was my Dad, but not the character.
The character of Russell Lawrence, on Gidget, lived in a suburban home as a college professor who presided over his two daughters with sage, even-tempered advice. Gidget lasted only one season but it endured in reruns and each time I settled in to watch it I imagined Don Porter was my father. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my own father, it was just that I thought life would be terrific if I looked like Sally Field and my Dad always acted like this TV dad. It helped that my father greatly resembled Don Porter. Once the credits rolled the introjections ended. During this same period, best friend Mary Kay confided that she thought that her father, who was a dentist, was the same dentist who lived next door to the Petries’ in the Dick Van Dyke Show. Who was I to dispute this?
In 1982 I went to graduate school in New York and left television behind for the next decade. My new roommate, Wendy, announced that Contadina Tomato Paste was changing their label and went out and bought a can with the old label before it disappeared for good.
“When I was little I thought this was my mother was on this can,” she said pointing to the dark haired woman holding a basket of tomatoes in a field.
“Does she look like your mother?” I had asked.
“A lot,” Wendy nodded. “But I also I thought my mother was Judy Garland.”
We were living in a depressed area of Brooklyn and Wendy, who hailed from Wichita (her favorite movie was The Wizard of Oz) brought new meaning to the phrase, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” each time we ventured down a somewhat sketchy street.
Wendy took a Polaroid SX-70 photograph of Judy Garland from a television screen and when her actual mother came to visit us Wendy asked her Mom to show me her impersonation of Judy. Her mother put on a pair of sun glasses, tipped her head back shook it slightly and smiled. I had to admit they not only looked alike but her Mom shared some of the same iconic mannerisms of the late singer.
That same year Wendy introduced me to my future husband, Rob. One thing people who grew up with television often connect over is a shared TV experience from childhood. Each of us were raised in different states but the television programs were much more limited than they are today so we basically watched the same things. I mentioned that All in the Family, which ran throughout the seventies, had been one of my family’s favorite shows. Rob shook his head in utter disagreement.
“I hated that show,” he exclaimed.
“What? But it was so funny!”
“Not to me,” he said. “I never considered it comedy.”
He went on to explain that the main character, Archie Bunker, reminded him too much of his own father. Archie was a working-class World War II veteran living in Queens. Rob’s father, also a veteran, was an uneducated house painter from the Bronx who was dismissive of anyone not in agreement with his view of the world. Both men could be irascible and fly off the handle without knowing all the facts. They both had wives who placated them but were actually much smarter than they let on.People like Archie Bunker were so foreign a concept to me that I never thought about the actual people the character might have been based upon. The same way that fathers who wore ties were an alien concept to Rob. Fathers on television in the fifties, sixties and seventies gave us a glimpse into what fathers were all about. Our own fathers lead mysterious daytime lives away from us and finding a surrogate on TV helped fill in the blanks of what fathers really did.
TV Guide created a list of the Top Fifty TV Dads of all time based upon input from fans. I’m attaching the link to the list so you can go and compare these choices with your own conclusions. Maybe one of the names will remind you of a time when your younger self thought your Dad was on television. (TV Guide never made a top fifty moms list.) I’ve determined that making connections between fictitious characters and real people in our lives is fairly common. I asked my daughter if she ever had this experience and she told me she used to pretend she was a member of the Little House on The Prairie family when she watched it on TV.
In my convalescence on the lake this winter I spent a few days binging on season two of House of Cards. Although the show entertained me I had an empty feeling at the season’s end. There is not one character in the series I could identify with or relate to. Almost everyone is self-serving and unlikable except the President who came across as unbelievably stupid. There are some great television dramas on today but I haven’t discovered a current character who might motivate me to make a life change. In my favorite current show Mad Men, there isn’t a redeeming father in the bunch. Or in another favorite, Downton Abby, a father refused to attend his daughter’s wedding to an Irishman. Also none of the parents spend any time with their young children. Today, most TV is a glut of fake reality. Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Real Housewives of…(insert city here), Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Jersey Shore and Duck Dynasty to name a few of the shows that have supplanted deep meaningful characters as role models with baseless reality TV people.
The beauty of shows like The Waltons was it came on once a week and you had time to process the difference between the TV lives and your own. When faced with a dilemma you might stop and ask, “How would John Walton make this decision?” Ralph Waite brought poetry and beauty to the character of John Walton which is why he inadvertently inspired someone to go to college.