How do you make a show about family values that manages to reproduce the ideological imperative of the vital importance of the father to the maturation of young son while also allowing the introduction of a little flirty romance with an assortment of attractive women without intruding on the sanctity of marriage? If it was 1960s TV, the answer was both simple and omnipresent: kill off the wife before the show even begins. The plethora of widowers tasked with the job of raising a son into manhood while also being more than competent at their job is one of those odd additions to the national zeitgeist that occasionally rears its weirdly unexpected face on TV screens. Television in the 1960s overrun with widowers the same way that television in the second decade of the 21st century is overrun with pawn shop workers. Nobody can really explain why; it’s just the way things are.
Ben Cartwright: Bonanza
Ben Cartwright may not have been the first widower raising sons on 1960s TV, but he absolutely must be crowned the King of the Widowers. Either that or he should be known as the Black Widower because when you are raising three sons each borne of three different wives who all died…well, something ain’t kosher on the Ponderosa, if you ask me.
Lucas McCain: The Rifleman
Ben Cartwright wasn’t the only pioneer seeking a way to raise a son to manhood in the wildness of the west. Lucas McCain only had one kid to raise and only one wife to die. When you think of the overabundance of widowers raising sons on 1960s TV, you probably tend to think of sitcom dads. It is worth noting that several dramas sought to teach family values every week with the notable absence of a feminine influence.
Andy Taylor: The Andy Griffith Show
And when there was a feminine influence, it more often than not appeared in the form of a matronly woman who dispensed wisdom to both father and son rather. Aunt Bee is the prototypical example of how these shows about widowers raising sons managed to work in the feminine perspective while still allowing the father to get into some romantic entanglements with an assortment of women.
Hal Towne: The Dennis O’Keefe Show
One might well make the case that “The Dennis O’Keefe Show” was the one which initiated all those funny widowers on 1960s TV. Actually, this show about a widower raising a ten year old kid while working as a newspaper columnist premiered in 1959 and only barely made it into the 1960s. Even so, it set the stage for so much comedy that was to come in this nation’s most turbulent decade.
Jerry Webster: Accidental Family
While Dick Van Dyke was heading up the model of a 1960s nuclear family as Rob Petrie, his brother Jerry Van Dyke joined the widower’s club in “Accidental Family.” Jerry played a nightclub comic with a son named Sandy and a dead wife somewhere in the closet. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this addition the league of widowed fathers in 1960s TV is that during its brief run, the sitcom gave Jerry a distaff counterpart. Sue Kramer managed the farm where Jerry sought to find a sense of normalcy for Sandy. Sue was a single mom raising a daughter equipped with a unisex name just like Jerry’s son: Tracy. But that is where the similarity ends for, you see, Sue was no widow, but a divorcee!
Sam Bailey: The Baileys of Balboa
The really weird thing about widower TV in the 1960s was that many shows featured a widower as the lead character even when there really was absolutely no reason. For instance, “The Baileys of Balboa” featured a grandfatherly widower with a son in his 40s. It’s not as if there were going to be big plans to feature Papa Bailey in a series of romances with attractive young guest stars. And yet, for some reason, “The Baileys of Balboa” is another 1960s sitcom with a suspicious lack of motherly love.
Tom Corbett: The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
While the fact of being a widower was often glossed over in many of the shows of 1960s featuring motherless households, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” was so preoccupied with the lack of a wife that its very title reminded viewers on a weekly basis of the marital situation at hand. Another aspect that separates “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” from the rest of the 1960s TV shows built upon a strong foundation of testosterone is that it was based on a very successful feature film.
Porter Ricks: Flipper
Well, I guess if you have an incredibly intelligent bottle-nosed dolphin like Flipper to help raise your two kids, you don’t really need a wife. “Flipper” featured a widower tasked with raising not, not three, but two kids while also working as a wildlife ranger in Florida. Thank God, he had that dolphin to help out, right?
Steve Douglas: My Three Sons
Kind of the sitcom version of “Bonanza.” Steve Douglas was, like Ben Cartwright, raising three sons as a widower. Of course, Steve still cannot compete with Ben for the title of Widower King since he only had one wife to not live.
Mike Brady: The Brady Bunch
Just a few short months before the 1960s came to an end, Mike Brady, another widower with three sons to raise, married Carol Ann Tyler Martin. The days of Mike Brady trying to raise three sons as a widower with a mother in the house and only an old, wiser housekeeper named Alice to add a little femininity, came to an end after roughly ten minutes of screen time. There would still be widower dads raising sons on TV, but as a bona fide phenomenon stretching across networks and genres, Mike Brady finding a wife to help raise his three sons and putting behind his days as a single widower can be viewed symbolically as the end of a strange era on American television.