Learning The Lessons Of TV Fatherhood After 20 years as a television critic — and many more as a simple viewer — a reflection on how a kid who mostly grew up without a father learned how to become one himself by watching dads on TV.
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Learning The Lessons Of TV Fatherhood

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Learning The Lessons Of TV Fatherhood

Learning The Lessons Of TV Fatherhood

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This Sunday is Father's Day, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has been thinking about how he learned to be a father from the dads he saw on TV.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: My father isn't with us anymore, and I loved him a lot. But he and my mother split before I was born. So understanding what it meant to have a father close by required this lifelong TV nerd to turn here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIMES THEME SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Good times.

BLINKY WILLIAMS: (Singing) Any time you need a friend...

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Good times...

DEGGANS: It's tough to overstate how rare and important it was for a young black kid from Gary, Ind., to see this show in 1974. Esther Rolle, whose character Florida Evans was spun off from the sitcom "Maude" to create "Good Times," insisted this pioneering sitcom about a poor black family in Chicago have a strong father figure. So it was like looking at a dream to see John Amos as powerful, hard-working dad James Evans. He was tough on his youngest son, Michael, after he joined a club that seemed to be turning into a gang.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

JOHN AMOS: (As James Evans) The only reason I let you join this club is because you said it stood for self-pride and awareness. But if your club is talking about revenge, it ain't become nothing but a gang, and you just quit.

RALPH CARTER: (As Michael Evans) Hey, Daddy, you can't take my jacket from me.

AMOS: (As James Evans) Looks to me like I just did.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: (As James Evans) Now, you want to discuss it?

CARTER: (As Michael Evans) No.

DEGGANS: Michael was reacting to his dad reaching for his belt, a jarring sight today when TV parents never raise a hand to kids on camera. But back then, it felt authentic and real. Back then, I was clueless about life with a dad in the house. I actually thought married couples slept in two twin beds like on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." And as much as I love the smooth avuncularity of TV dads like Robert Reed's Mike Brady on "The Brady Bunch," the best example of the dads in my neighborhood could be found at the theater. In 1987, James Earl Jones played frustrated trash collector Troy Maxson in August Wilson's "Fences" on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FENCES")

JAMES EARL JONES: (As Troy Maxson) You live in my house. You sleep your behind on my bedclothes. You put my food in your belly because you are my son. You are my flesh and blood - not because I like you.

DEGGANS: For me, what felt like a better fathering role model was Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable, a funny, successful doctor who wasn't chafing under the weight of life. In one scene on "The Cosby Show," he used Monopoly money to show how Theo might struggle financially if he skipped college.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BILL COSBY SHOW")

BILL COSBY: (As Cliff Huxtable) Three hundred dollars a week, $1,200 a month - all right.

MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER: (As Theo Huxtable) Great, I'll take it.

COSBY: (As Cliff Huxtable) Yes, you will.

(LAUGHTER)

COSBY: (As Cliff Huxtable) And I will take $350 for taxes.

WARNER: (As Theo Huxtable) Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

COSBY: (As Cliff Huxtable) Yeah, now - because, see; the government comes for the regular people first.

DEGGANS: Cosby's current trial for sexual assault shows actors can be very different from who they play on TV. It also ruins the memory of a TV dad who showed how patience and humor could decode the toughest parenting problems. In raising my own kids - and while I'm mostly proud of what I've done - I sometimes can't help feeling like a clueless Homer Simpson...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Can't hurt the boy, can't hurt the boy.

DEGGANS: ...Or Ray Romano's well-meaning but over-his-head Ray Barone on "Everybody Loves Raymond."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND")

RAY ROMANO: (As Ray Barone) Look; you have to do what mommy says.

MADYLIN SWEETEN: (As Ally Barone) Why?

ROMANO: (As Ray Barone) Because I do...

DEGGANS: But few depictions of fatherhood have touched me like NBC's "This Is Us," which showed Ron Cephas Jones as William Hill on his deathbed, reconciling with the adult son he gave up at birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS US")

RON CEPHAS JONES: (As William Hill) I haven't had a happy life, a life of almosts and could-haves. Some would call it sad, but I don't because the two best things in my life are the person in the very beginning and the person at the very end.

DEGGANS: My dad and I didn't really get that kind of moment before he died, but "This Is Us" did help me accept that good men can make mistakes. And forgiveness is one of the most important skills any father or son can have. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAHAMAS SONG, "CAUGHT ME THINKING")

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