It was just father and son out there on the prairie, working the ranch. The town knew the dad as a model citizen, ready to step in at any hint of trouble to keep the peace. The son minded his manners and performed his daily chores without complaint. This was “The Rifleman,” which aired from 1958 to 1963.
I watched the black-and-white Western as a boy and watch it now, in reruns, as a grandfather. Chuck Connors played the father, Lucas McCain, a Civil War veteran who promises his dying wife to care for their son. Set in the 1880s, it was the first prime-time TV series featuring a single parent raising a child.
TV in the 1960s was big on fathers. You could watch Jim Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” Danny Williams on “Make Room For Daddy,” Steve Douglas on “My Three Sons,” Ward Cleaver on “Leave It to Beaver,” Ben Cartwright on “Bonanza,” Rob Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Ozzie Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” Tom Corbett on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Generally these were suburban dads, breadwinners who carried briefcases to work while the wife stayed home raising the kids. They reflected a largely patriarchal society where men made the big decisions and tended to play the role of fathers only while off-duty.
Somewhere along the line, fathers on TV came to be redefined mainly as hapless fools. Starting in the 1980s, “Married With Children” gave us the lowlife Al Bundy, who treated everyone — including his wife, daughter and son — with equal disdain.