Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?
We honored Mother’s Day with an appreciation of television’s funniest sitcom moms of the past twenty years. For Father’s Day, however, instead of casting an equally wide net to spotlight TV’s funniest dads of roughly the same time period, let’s focus on one sitcom dad who, while not as high-profile as several more obvious choices, can be recognized as perhaps the ideal TV dad of all-time.
Television’s roughly 75-year history is replete with sitcom fathers relegated to a few well-worn sub-groups: There’s the well-meaning but bumbling dad whose efforts to fix a leaky sink lead to near catastrophe; there’s the affable, clueless dad who blithely goes about his business seemingly unaware of his offspring’s latest dilemma or scheme; there’s the dad who seems to have a concise and articulate lecture at the ready for teaching his child or teen a valuable life lesson…plus a few more types whose “sitcom dad” traits — be they funny, admirable, irritating, bigoted, or a bit of each — have become familiar with TV aficionados. Many have indeed been role models, and sensible (if sometimes rather bland), genial fathers who managed to raise their offspring well. Some shows even had two dads or three dads to tackle the same responsibility.
But the honor of Best Sitcom Dad, as bestowed by yours truly, goes to Professor Russell Lawrence — a.k.a. Gidget’s dad — as portrayed by Don Porter, for Gidget’s single, 32–episode 1965–’66 season.
Perplexed by this choice? Stay tuned…
Gidget the TV series was based on the 1957 novel Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas by Frederick Kohner. A number of movies about the boy-crazy teen surfer, Francine “Gidget” Lawrence followed, with the first film, starring Sandra Dee, released in 1959.
Television’s Gidget brought future two-time Oscar winner Sally Field to the starring role, with veteran Don Porter as her father, college professor Russell Lawrence. It was 18-year-old Field’s first real acting gig, playing the nearly 16-year-old Gidget, while Porter had been a Hollywood veteran character actor since the early ‘40s. He also played Russell Lawrence in the film Gidget Goes to Rome before continuing as her dad in the series.
Viewing the program now — approaching fifty years since it first aired — Porter’s portrayal of Russell Lawrence comes as a breath of fresh air, especially when compared with many other sitcom dads of that era, on programs like The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show. My Three Sons, and lest we forget The Munsters and The Addams Family.
On Gidget, Porter, like his fictional contemporaries, comes across as an easygoing guy. A widower raising Gidget alone (albeit with frequent input from Gidget’s older sister Anne and her husband John), he is not a cliched walking D.I.Y. disaster, nor does he turn into a self-righteous lecturer whenever Gidget gets herself into a bind, frequently of her own making. Russell is a cool dad — he keeps a watchful eye on his daughter, approves or denies her sometimes outlandish plans/requests, while at the same time allowing her the freedom to be a teen with a social life consisting of school dances, hanging out at the malt shop, and, above all, spending most of her spare hours on her surfboard at the beach.
More often than not, the senior Lawrence finds himself quietly amused by Gidget’s whirlwind of activity, or even by the latest dilemma that, while catastrophic in her eyes, invites him to gently mock her overly dramatic take on some high school intrigue. And, like any dad, he might also find himself in turns annoyed, worried, or frustrated by his on-the-go daughter. Perhaps most impressively, though, he actually makes his own share of mistakes in his efforts to raise her, and admits to them when called on it.
And, even better…he’s funny, in his own bemused, sarcastic way.
In an interview many years later, Field said, “I think what they turned the series into was different than the film, the series turned out to be a relationship between a father and a daughter, and that was really a wonderful time for me to explore something that I didn’t feel I’d ever had. I wasn’t really close like that with either of my fathers, for various reasons” (her parents divorced when she was a toddler, and she alleges her step-father, Hollywood actor/stuntman Jock Mahoney, sexually abused her throughout her childhood, until his divorce from Field’s mother in 1968).
“And so Don Porter kind of became that for me. He was just wonderful. He really took care of me. First of all, he respected me, and he didn’t treat me like, ‘who are you, you newcomer,’ But more than that, he was such a loving, gentle, sweet, caring man, that when he would see people coming at me in a hurtful way, he would protect me.”
Field provided an example of how Porter helped make the cast table readings easier when rehearsing each week’s new script. She would occasionally come upon a word in the dialogue unfamiliar to her, and mispronounce it (such as “mundane” or “symbiotic”), causing the others to laugh, which she found humiliating. Porter responded by taking the seat next to her at the table, and from then on quietly cue her whenever he’d see a word coming up that she might not know, pronouncing it so only she could hear it spoken correctly before she needed to read it aloud.
While Gidget aired for only one season, it boasted sophisticated writing and several storylines with surprising depth and insight — not often found in a light, wholesome mid-1960s sitcom.
In only the fourth episode. “Daddy Come Home” (written by Ruth Brooks Flippen, who also penned numerous episodes of That Girl and Bewitched), we find Gidget increasingly worried when Russ, on a date, stays out unexpectedly late without phoning her. As the hour grows late, she can’t help but imagine that he might have run into serious trouble, such as a car accident, and phones the police in a panic. Mistaking Gidget for Russell’s mother, a patrolman (Harvey Korman) finds Russ and his date, informs him that his “mother” is worried, and follows him home (and topping the night by handing him a speeding ticket). Russell’s humiliation is clear, and he fumes in his bedroom as Gidget sobs in her own, but his anger dissolves when Gidget explains through her tears that she was so worried by not hearing from him, she didn’t know what else to do. In the heartbreaking scene, he apologizes, and agrees she was right that he should have phoned. “It doesn’t matter now, Daddy,” she says as she sobs, “just as long as you’re okay, and safe, and healthy, and alive. And stay that way. Oh, Daddy, please don’t ever let anything happen to you!”
Another episode, “Is it Love, or Symbiosis?” takes a somewhat surprising turn down the very real road of parent-child dynamics, as Gidget’s brother-in-law John (Pete Duel), studying for his psychology degree, notices how Russell has become increasingly dependent on Gidget for mundane daily rituals and chores such as preparing and serving their meals, and mending clothes in need of a sewing job — thereby thinking of her as more of a housewife (remember, this was 1965), than a daughter. “You’ve gotten to depend on her so much, your subconscious refuses to release her,” John admonishes Russell. “As long as you’ve got Gidget, you’ll never re-marry. And in about twenty years, we’ll have the classic spectacle of an elderly parent with a dried-up spinster daughter, still fixing your meals and rubbing your back. That’s symbiosis.” To which Russell replies, “That’s baloney.”
Fairly deep stuff (we’ll sidestep the Freudian implications for now), but handled with both insight and humor throughout the episode, as John’s words continue to echo throughout Russell’s head, and soon he’s overcompensating by offering to cook dinner, refusing back-rubs from Gidget, and even considering sending her to a private school in Paris to break the cycle of co-dependency. She interprets this as a sign that he’s is sending her away in order to spread his own wings and live the life he’s been missing, free of having to care for her on a daily basis. After a few more signals get mixed up, they both come clean and assure each other that their life together is just fine, with a few changes to be made, but further draconian measures — such as shipping Gidget off to Paris — unnecessary.
Of course, the majority of Gidget episodes centered on the comic exploits most often associated with her character. The charming Field was a revelation in the role — part innocent, part street-savvy, quite intelligent and articulate, and perhaps just a bit over-enthusiastic for new ventures that would have benefitted from further thought. But through it all, Porter as Russell Lawrence always managed, albeit with an occasional stumble or two, to find the balance between disciplinarian and benevolent patriarch, confident that his daughter’s common sense would eventually win out — most of the time.
Sounds like the perfect sitcom dad to me.
Until next time…
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