When Andy Griffith died July 3, a prototype of our American national father figure passed on — or at least the prototype of many years ago. Where have all those good dads gone?
Griffith was the star of the long-running “The Andy Griffith Show,” a warm-hearted comedy about a small town sheriff, Andy Taylor, in the fictitious southern hamlet of Mayberry.
I watched Andy when I was a kid. He was one of many stars who played the part of the wise, gentle, good dad back in those days. Like the dads on “My Three Sons,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best,” Sheriff Andy was kind, virtuous and, most importantly, always there for his son.
Never mind that he was the town sheriff. When motherless Opie needed his dad, he knew where to find him, and the iconic father-and-son stroll to the fishing hole that opened each episode told us where Andy’s priorities were.
Obviously, that was an idealized version of fatherhood. We all know there were lots of dads back then who were neither kind, virtuous nor always there. But it was nice to see that image, wasn’t it? Hopefully, that image influenced some young men who grew up to be dads today.
When I was young, the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” had a great impact on the civil rights movement. Has there ever been a more heroic dad, a dad we really wished could be our own, than Atticus Finch?
When I left my home in the Midwest as a young adult to be part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I headed for an isolated Alaskan village. I felt like I was leaving so much of my past behind.
A few nights before I left for Alaska, I turned on the television in my mom’s house and the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” was playing. My father had died a few years before. As I watched, I’m sure I was moved by the injustice playing out on the screen, which reflected our national life at the time. But what I mainly saw was Atticus Finch, the dad.
All of my fears of leaving home, my loneliness for my own dad, my hopes for living out a just life, were encapsulated in the stirring performance of Gregory Peck as the lawyer defending the black man unjustly accused. I wanted Atticus Finch to be my dad, and for a little while, as I cried after the movie ended, my dad was just like Scout’s dad, the two merging in my memory.
It’s not entirely fair to measure our parents against impossible ideals portrayed in fiction. I hope my three kids don’t regret that they have no memories of me vacuuming while wearing my pearl necklace like the old-time TV moms.
But, aren’t good role models important? You see a lot of strong mothers portrayed in movies and television today, but have you noticed how men are portrayed? Dads are almost invariably bunglers, not quite as sharp as their female counterparts, or for that matter, their wise-beyond-their-years offspring.
In movie comedies today, the raunchier the male character, the better. Crude, lewd, full of juvenile humor, never as ambitious or successful as the girl, the guys are pathetic, drunks and ne’er-do-wells.
Men even come across as klutzes in television commercials.
Where are Atticus Finch and Andy Taylor? We are sorely in need of better role models. If we find these heroes in fiction, film or television, let’s support them. A whole generation of kids could use them badly.