Slide show: What do "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Glee" have in common? Men who make fatherhood look great
10. Burt Hummel, “Glee”
Burt Hummel, the father of the effeminate, flamboyant musical prodigy Kurt on Fox’s “Glee,” is the most psychologically credible father of a gay son ever seen on network television. You believe him because of longtime sitcom star Mike O’Malley’s subtle yet emotionally direct performance, and because series creator Ryan Murphy and his writers have taken the trouble to make Burt a real person. He’s not a symbol of intolerance or enlightenment or anything else; he’s just a working-class straight man who loves his boy and wants him to be happy, even though a lifetime of conditioning makes him uncomfortable with everything Kurt is about.
When Finn — Burt’s girlfriend’s son, and Kurt’s classmate and unrequited crush object — derides Kurt’s room decorations as “faggy,” and Burt chews out Finn with a level of fury that seems an understandable overreaction in retrospect, there’s more going on than politically correct posturing. You suspect that Burt is not just instinctively defending his son’s honor and dignity, but perhaps having a belated, shameful reaction to his own lifelong discomfort with gay people. In other words, the man is working through some very serious personal issues in his own way, honestly and with the best of intentions, because that’s the only way to be the pillar of strength his son needs.
Given all these social and emotional wrinkles, it’s amazing that Burt manages to do and say the right things (mostly, but not always). For my money, the best Burt-Kurt moment so far is the early scene in which Kurt tells Burt that he’s gay, and Burt answers, “I know … I’ve known since you were 3. All you wanted for your birthday was a pair of sensible heels. I guess I’m not totally in love with the idea, but, if that’s who you are, there’s nothing I can do about it. And I love you just as much. OK?” Burt, like Kurt, has a lot of growing to do. But he’s already figured out the overarching lesson of fatherhood: It’s not about you.
9. Andy Taylor, “The Andy Griffith Show”
Laid-back patriarchal wisdom, thy name is Andy Taylor. The sheriff of Mayberry might have the easiest time of any father on this list; aside from rescuing his doofus deputy, Barney Fife, embarking on the occasional non-lethal manhunt and negotiating petty feuds between citizens, Andy seemed to spend most of his time fishing, reading the paper and shooting the breeze. But his relationship with his son Opie (little Ronny Howard, before all those Oscars) grounded the series and gave it unexpected emotional weight.
Andy was a widower, and while he didn’t talk about it all the time or allow it to overshadow his life, the fact was always present in Griffith’s rueful performances opposite Howard. He was trying to pass on whatever personal wisdom he’d gained and teach his son how to be a decent man, but his sensitivity to the nuances of his son’s feelings — stereotypically feminine traits nestled within that amiable redneck papa exterior — suggested that he had absorbed his late wife’s examples and was trying, in his own way, to pass them on.
And has there ever been a better, less sentimental example of how to explain violence, death and responsibility to a child than the fourth season episode “Opie the Birdman,” in which Opie feels guilt over killing a bird with his BB gun and his father turns the moment into a dry-eyed consideration of mortality and the difference between intentions and results. Then Andy raises Opie’s window and lets in the sound of baby birds in a nest outside. “You hear that?” he asks. “That’s baby birds chirping for their momma that’s never coming back. Now you just listen to that for a while.”
8. Shukichi, “Late Spring”
Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), the widowed professor in Yasijiro Ozu’s early masterwork “Late Spring,” is bedeviled by two challenges that every father eventually must face: his own advancing age and his correspondingly acute awareness that his best shot at happiness is helping his child find hers. To that end, Shukichi strongly encourages his young-adult daughter, Noriko, to leave the nest and get married, then half-assedly tries to lead by example, telling his daughter that he’s going to remarry and making a big show of trying to do just that, all the while insisting that matrimony is a necessary human goal that she shouldn’t be afraid to pursue. (“Late Spring” is postwar Japan, where 21st century feminism was neither a personal nor a dramatic option; that said, it’s interesting how the film questions traditional mores — notably in a scene where the father defends arranged marriages — yet never congratulates itself for holding a “correct” attitude.)
Unfortunately, neither father nor daughter has any innate interest in marriage. Why? Maybe — and the film understands this, too — it’s because (emotionally speaking) they’re already married to each other. It’s not easy to maintain your own distinctive identity when you spend much of your waking life worrying about the happiness of someone you live with. (That’s a harsh but true fact of parenthood as well as marriage.) “Late Spring” isn’t a feel-good movie by any stretch. But it’s elating because of the sensitively drawn central characters and the realism with which it shows them trying to deal with mundane yet impossible circumstances. Fathers and their strong-willed daughters should watch this movie together.
7. Furious Styles, “Boyz N the Hood”
The hero of the 1991 film “Boyz N the Hood,” Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.), is a South Central teen struggling to balance two opposing impulses: his desire to educate and uplift himself and escape his harsh surroundings, and the need to act hard so his friends won’t think he’s a punk. Luckily for Tre, he won the fatherhood lottery: His life is being guided by Furious Styles.
Larry Fishburne plays Furious as the baddest good dad in modern American cinema: a character who’s equally credible chasing a burglar out of his house with a gigantic handgun, advising his son to use protection with his girlfriend, or standing near a vacant lot delivering an impromptu neighborhood sermon about the importance of owning property. But he’s no plaster saint. Sometimes he overanalyzes Tre and talks down to him (and you can see Furious’ regret when he catches himself doing it). And in his scenes opposite his ex-wife (Angela Bassett), who asked Furious to raise their son and show him how to be a man, you sense Furious’ class resentment (he’s blue-collar, she’s white-collar) rising to the surface, and Furious doing his damnedest to contain it because that’s what’s best for Tre. (You can also see that he’s still a little bit sweet on this fine woman and wishes things could have worked out.)
The more closely you examine this finely wrought character, the more you appreciate how important he is not just to his son, but to writer-director John Singleton’s debut feature, which seesaws between Sunday morning bromides about the right way to live and a perhaps unavoidable tendency (Singleton was a few years out of high school when he wrote the script) to get wrapped up in the ‘hood’s chest-thumping cartoon version of masculinity. When a bloodied Tre resolves to seek revenge for a friend’s murder, and Furious stands between his armed boy and their front door, the movie proves beyond a doubt that a real man is defined not by his willingness to commit violence, but his capacity to resist the urge. “You’re my only son,” he says, embracing Tre, “and I’m not gonna lose you to no bullshit, you hear?”
6. The Father, “Children of Heaven”
This 1997 film by Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi is a beguiling fable set in a tough world. It has been compared to Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Pachali” and Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”; the comparison fits not just because of the subject matter — young kids surviving hardship while struggling to hold on to their innocence — but because of its graceful, classical style and intense feelings. The plot is simple as can be: Elder brother Ali and his kid sister Zahra have but one pair of shoes each; when the brother accidentally loses his sister’s shoes, they contrive a desperate plan to share Ali’s pair and keep the gambit a secret from their father. Every moment is leading to that fateful scene when the father finally learns what happens and decides what to do about it.
You may have noticed that the father in this film has no name. That’s because in this film — as in “E.T.,” another classic family film whose lyrical intensity Majidi unexpectedly evokes — the tale is told mainly from the kids’ point of view. And every scene, indeed every moment, testifies to their father’s looming, slightly abstract but ultimately positive influence.
Ali and Zarah’s coverup might strike some adults as a child’s hysterical overreaction to a simple mistake. But the film’s clear-eyed depiction of the family’s circumstances — specifically the father’s regular bicycle trips through Tehran’s middle-class neighborhoods in search of day labor, vividly evoked in a sequence where Dad takes Ali along on a search — shows you that in this world, a pair of shoes means everything. Ali and Zarah understand this because their father has shown them that life is hard, that some days it takes courage just to face it, and that every significant object in their lives came from his labor and is physical proof of his love for them.
5. Stan, “Killer of Sheep”
American films are notorious for rarely showing any character engaged in sustained, serious work. Charles Burnett’s masterful 1977 debut “Killer of Sheep” shows little else, and that’s the source of its power. Set in South Central Los Angeles during the mid-’70s — and shot in grainy black-and-white that links the tale to the tradition of Italian neorealism — the film is about how hard it is to build a relaxed, reflective, sensitive family life when you’ve got to work all goddamned day, every day, to make your monthly nut.
The film’s title could double as an unofficial nickname for its father character, Stan, who works long hours at a local slaughterhouse and has blood on his mind even after he’s washed it from his skin. As played by Henry G. Sanders, the character is a working-class hero par excellence, a limited but decent man who’s just doing what he has to do to get by, and somehow finding the energy to teach his kids to be decent and respectful and take his loving, equally beleaguered wife (Kaycee Moore) for an impromptu spin in the bedroom. (You can’t quite call it a dance scene, because Stan’s so tired he can barely stand up.) And he musters the good sense to listen to his wife when counsel is needed most — and man, is he glad he did. (When a couple of neighborhood ruffians try to enlist Stan’s help with a contract killing in exchange for a quick buck — playing on his macho vanity by saying, “You be a man if you can, Stan” — she intervenes and chews them out, proclaiming, “You talk about ‘Be a man, stand up to it.’ Don’t you know there’s more to it than just your fist?”)
If you’re worn out by the daily struggle to put food on the table and clothes on your kids’ backs, and yet you still summon the willpower to do right by your mate and your kids, you need to see this movie. “Killer of Sheep” knows what it’s like.
4. The Father, “The Road”
There’s no government, no military, no economy, no running water, no electricity. There’s food, but unfortunately it’s wearing clothes.
John Hillcote’s version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is about an unnamed father (Viggo Mortensen) with a horrible cough who’s raising his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) alone in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. The father has two jobs. One is making sure that he and his son stay alive. The other is teaching his son that it’s possible to survive without losing your humanity.
He tells his son that they’re the good guys, that they’re “carrying the fire,” and that’s why they can’t let themselves become like all those other people. In a landscape dotted with human skulls, that’s not an easy sell. But the father gets the lesson across by conducting himself with honor, decency and courage. Civilization is a state of mind.
3. Nathan Lee Morgan, “Sounder”
Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) is a Louisiana sharecropper who steals food to feed his starving family and gets sent to prison. While he’s incarcerated, his son David Daniel Lee (Kevin Hooks) has to grow up overnight and become the man of the house. He rises to the challenge with help from his mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), a great parent. She’s firm but fair, and inclined to tell kids the hard truth about life rather than shield them from it. But the boy’s sense of himself comes from Nathan. The father taught the son what it means to be a good man. Once he’s gone you see how deeply David absorbed the lesson. The one thing he hasn’t learned is the difference between battles that can be won and battles that can’t, and Rebecca is helping him understand that.
“Sounder” was directed by Martin Ritt from Lonne Elder III’s acclaimed young adult novel. The title refers to the family’s beloved dog, a hound whose bark can be heard from miles away and who disappears from the story around the same time as Nathan. But the title also alludes to the power of the man’s example. His strength and goodness made such an impression on David that even when his father was no longer around, the son could still hear his voice.
2. Charles Ingalls, “Little House on the Prairie”
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about life in 1870s Wisconsin, Charles Ingalls was a man of his time: a tough but decent farmer who doted on his wife, Caroline, and his daughters, especially Laura herself, whom he dubbed “Half-Pint.” The Charles Ingalls of the same-named, Kansas-set NBC series — played by Michael Landon, who set the tone for the entire production and directed many episodes — was bigger than that. Charles was one-stop shopping for ideal fatherly traits — a character that stone-faced disciplinarian fathers and laid-back hippie dads who liked to discuss feelings could look at and think, “Yes, he’s right. He gets it.”
He had the toughness required to survive the plains around the turn of the century; in one episode, he and a couple of buddies got a job at a quarry, entered a speed competition for dynamite hole-drillers and won. When two ruffians tried to rape his wife, he stormed their house and fought them until they left him bleeding in the street. But he was an enlightened man who could freely express affection for his wife and children. When Laura’s older sister Mary lost her sight, Charles was a rock.
He and Caroline raised their girls to be as tough and as smart as boys even as they indulged and appreciated their girlishness. And when their own kids started to grow up and think about leaving the nest, they adopted a couple more. They saw marriage and parenting as a team effort. They treated their children not as obligations but as people with unique and fascinating personalities and values that deserved respect. They ate dinner together by firelight around a wooden table, and from time to time Charles or Caroline would throw each other a look that meant the kids would go play outside for a couple of hours, preferably at the outer edge of the property line. But only after they’d finished clearing the table and helping to wash and dry the dishes.
1. The Little Tramp, “The Kid”
A pregnant woman is abandoned by her lover and gives birth in a home for unwed mothers. Believing herself incapable of caring for her newborn son, she tucks a note into his swaddling and abandons him in the back seat of a parked car. The owners of the car hand the baby off again, and he gets bounced from one person to another until he’s found by a tramp. The tramp tries to hand off the kid, too, with no luck. He sits on a curb and gives the baby a knuckle to chew on and thinks about what to do next. And then he finds the note, which reads: “Please give love and care to this orphan child.”
So he takes him home and raises him as if he were his own son.