Given the endless challenges facing the state of the faith, the family, the country and even the world, you might not think I should be spending my time writing about television parents, but please humor me, won’t you?
By now you’ve probably heard of the passing of the always elegant Barbara Billingsley, that supermom of the 1950s iconic television program, Leave it to Beaver. Mrs. Cleaver cooked and cleaned the house in a dress and pearls and was always there to welcome home the boys, Wally and Theodore, and her faithful husband, Ward. Mrs. Billingsley was 94 and died in Malibu, California.
Just a few days later, we learned of the death of Tom Bosley. He was 83. Best known as “Mr. C” on Happy Days, the character of Howard Cunningham was the quintessential Midwestern middle-class father. He owned a hardware store, loved baseball, was always mildly annoyed at Fonzie’s antics, served as the Grand Poobah of Leopard Lodge No. 462 in Milwaukee, and regularly dolled out wise advice to his two kids, Richie and Joanie (and Chuck before he mysteriously disappeared in season one).
We loved these two characters and in fact, for many people, even the mere mention of their names still conjures up a warm and nostalgic association.
After all, it’s just fictional television: simple and unrealistic plots, each punctuated by a problem and a solution, all served and wrapped up neat and tidy in 22 minutes.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I think many of us were drawn to these characters because we didn’t have at home what we saw on our televisions. By watching each week, we lived vicariously in the towns of Mayfield and Milwaukee. The Cleavers and the Cunninghams weren’t portrayed as perfect families – but they contained a mom and a dad whose life revolved around the kids. The respective families were sane, sensitive and sensible. No problem was too big for dad, who always seemed able to laugh his way through even the toughest of times. Mom might have been a bit zany, but she was always gentle and a loving touch.
Both Billingsley and Bosley regularly pushed back when critics suggested the plot lines and dialogue weren’t realistic. At the time of the filming of Beaver, Barbara Billingsley was a widowed mother of two boys. “I think the show had an awful lot of truth to it,” she said. “A lot was written about things that had happened to our writers or the children.”
I found it interesting that Tom Bosley originally turned down the offer to play the role of Howard Cunningham. But he had second thoughts, reread the script and decided to do it for one reason and one reason alone: he was drawn to the gentle and nurturing relationship between the father and the son.
It is “sophisticated” to lampoon television families of old, to mock the idealism of a happy home, qualifying them as hokey.
Yet, the very thing that people made and make fun of, is the same thing so many of us from dysfunctional homes craved as kids.
Of course, however positive and uplifting a portrayal of parenting as Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days might have been, it can’t hold a candle to the Scriptures, nor should it.
One might suggest the writers of these respective shows were influenced by a biblical understanding of childrearing and discipline. That wouldn’t surprise me, especially given the era. After all, when Ward and June sat down with Beaver and Wally and reminded them that “When you make a mistake, admit it. If you don’t, you only make matters worse,” they might have been indirectly referencing Proverbs 12:13-14: “An evil man is trapped by his sinful talk, but a righteous man escapes trouble. From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things as surely as the work of his hands rewards him.”
But this reflection isn’t my shot at developing a Beaver Bible study…just a few thoughts along the way in light of two recent deaths.
Incidentally, we’ve been talking about Tom Bosley and Barbara Billingsley, but the aforementioned Ward Cleaver, played by Hugh Beaumont, was actually a practicing Methodist minister. He died in 1982. He had strong feelings about modern TV morals:
“No money that I can earn as an actor can accomplish so much good that I would feel justified in violating my ideals to earn it,” he said. “If the question ever arises in a serious way, of course, I would have to give up my acting.”
There’s one dad who appeared to be solid both on – and off – the set. After reading that, I like him even more than I did before.
Just for fun, I’m curious who your favorite television parents might have been – and why?
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