Tom Shales reflects on 'Father Knows Best' and his real-life Margaret

THE MOTHER OF FAMILY TV: Clockwise from top right, Jane Wyatt, Billy Gray, Lauren Chapin, Elinor Donahue and Robert Young of
THE MOTHER OF FAMILY TV: Clockwise from top right, Jane Wyatt, Billy Gray, Lauren Chapin, Elinor Donahue and Robert Young of "Father Knows Best." (Associated Press)
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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why, on my mother's birthday, am I thinking about "Father Knows Best"? At our house, mother knew best at least as often as father did, but then the title of the old sitcom, a homogenized portrait of American family life, was meant to be slightly sardonic. The father on the show was often at a loss when confronting a new family problem -- there tended to be one a week -- though nothing remained unsolved when the show ended and it was time for "Wagon Train."

My mom, who passed away four years ago, would have been 96 today, if I've done the math right; I always told her she had to live at least to 100 so that Willard Scott could wish her a happy birthday on the "Today" show. She would respond that she had no desire to be that old, partly because many of her friends had already died and she didn't relish the idea of being alone, or of trying to make new friends in one of those assisted-living places.

I always thought I'd buy my mother a house if I ever became successful -- a big, beautiful house on the nicest street in town. It didn't exactly work out that way. I was still borrowing money from her in my 40s.

But then she always much preferred giving assistance to getting it, which is true I'd guess of millions of baby boomers' moms, and dads. Mom spent her life assisting the rest of us with our attempts at living, and in her final years, she was completely uncomfortable being reliant on anyone else, be it the kindness of strangers or anyone in the health-care field.

"Father Knows Best" was one of the sitcoms we watched regularly at our house in the '50s, one often included in sweeping denunciations of the fakey family sitcoms of the period -- father wearing a sport coat at home, never a bankruptcy or foreclosure in the neighborhood, bathrooms without toilets, few if any divorces or illegitimate births, and so on. It was a world of softened blows and rounded corners, largely and intentionally misrepresentative of American urban and suburban realities, shamefully uni-racial for the most part, homogenized and euphemistic.

Such criticisms are as old as the shows themselves, and they do nothing, really, to mute the shows' seductive charms. People of a certain age look back on the Mayberry of "The Andy Griffith Show" and become almost as homesick for that simple fictional hamlet as they do for their own home towns. Somehow the Mayberrians romped through the '60s without any protests against the Vietnam War or demonstrations against racial injustice and civil rights abuses; Mayberry was as removed from the real world as Shangri-La was in "Lost Horizon" back in the days that led to World War II.

On the best of evenings, our family sat together watching the one TV set in the household (a 14- and later 21-inch set), peering through a looking glass into the distorted reflection of our lives -- pleasingly distorted for the most part -- that we saw on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett" (Ozzie's only job: wearing sweaters), "Life With Father," "The Goldbergs" (about the Jewish family that lived down the block), and so on. "I Love Lucy," the first classic, really belonged more to the Wacky Woman genre than the domestic sitcom; "My Little Margie" and "I Married Joan" were among the shrill, coarse imitations.

"Father Knows Best" had a special place in my heart because I always thought Jane Wyatt, who played Margaret, wife to Robert Young as insurance man Jim Anderson, looked like my mom. They were similarly if not 100 percent equally beautiful, and they both projected great warmth and caring and a level-headedness that was one of the few reliables in life. When the sky dropped two feet of snow on our little Midwestern town, as it did nearly every winter -- not one in 200 -- mom backed the car out and drove me to the houses on my paper route, just as Margaret Anderson would have done on "Father Knows Best."

My favorite episode of the show was, fittingly then, an Emmy winner called "A Medal for Margaret," one of the relatively few installments that was all about Mother and how important she was in the lives of everyone else in the house. It wasn't precisely a proto-feminist exercise, however; Mom was important because she repaired a daughter's party dress at the last minute, or helped her son with -- his paper route, maybe? Something like that. These things blur.

The title refers to Margaret's attempt to win a medal for fly-casting, of all things, something she took up as a hobby when taunted by her family; they pointed out how none of the prizes or medals in the family trophy case had been won by Mother. It looked as though she would win the contest, too, until she broke her arm.

What did the family do? They staged their own version of a then-popular "reality" show (the term not yet a blight, by a long shot) called "This Is Your Life," on which celebrities were pounced on by host and producer Ralph Edwards so he could recount their biographies, with old friends and relatives popping up to refresh their memories.

It turned out that Margaret was easily as important to her family as Jimmy Stewart was to his in "It's a Wonderful Life."

The death knell was sounded for "Father Knows Best" by, as fate or something would have it, the arrival of the '60s; the year 1960 marked the show's last season. In the years since, the actors involved have gone from the idealized existence of the scripts into a considerably less rosy realm. Billy Gray, who played son Bud, has repeatedly trashed the show in interviews for its phony portrayal of American life. Lauren Chapin, who irresistibly played Kathy, the younger of two daughters -- her father's nickname for her was "Kitten" -- went through bad spells with drugs and such, a now-familiar pattern.

Robert Young, having grown much older and not often working as an actor, attempted suicide in 1991 and died of emphysema in 1998; Jane Wyatt lived to be 96 and died in 2006. Young confessed to having been an alcoholic during the years of "Father Knows Best." But the other-lives they lived on that show survive them, of course. Shout Video is releasing the entire series, year-by-year on DVD; the first volume included an episode in which little Kathy adopts an injured sparrow and then must endure the heartbreak when she has to release it into "the wild" of the family's back yard.

A shot of the family at the window and the bird flying treeward from Kathy's open hands is one of the sweetest iconic images of '50s TV.

I still, obviously, think of my own mom when I see an episode of "Father Knows Best." I remember her telling me, among other things, not to watch so much television. And I remember teasing her, for years afterward, because she tossed out dozens of old TV Guides I had saved as a little kid; they'd be worth 25 bucks apiece now, I'd tell her. She still maintained they were junk taking up precious basement space.

Of all the things she said to me over the years, there is just one two-word sentence that I can still hear her speaking if I close my eyes and try to summon her voice in my head. They were words she spoke to me not in person but over the telephone; in this case, the medium was indeed part of the message. And the two words were these: "Dad's gone." Now, of course, Mom's gone, too.

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