These are tough days for classic sitcom parents. First, Barbara Billingsley of "Leave It to Beaver" passed. Now, TMZ reports that Tom Bosley of "Happy Days" is gone.
Both had careers outside of their family shows. I just dug out the 1959 cast album of "Fiorello," where Bosley made his Broadway debut in the title role -- as New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. (Take a moment to sing "Little Tin Box" or "Politics and Poker.") The liner notes observe that Bosley had by then already been in stock productions, films and off-Broadway. But much the way Billingsley was for the most part known as June Cleaver, so Bosley -- even after starring in other TV productions, like "The Father Dowling Mysteries" -- was for ever after Howard Cunningham.
You can pretty much divide TV parents into two classes. There are the bumblers, who make so many mistakes that their children appear to the smart ones. And there are the handlers, who manage even the most awkward crises with a measure of wisdom. Of course, the handlers had their bumbling moments -- and Howard Cunningham at times did little more than express irritation. But overall you would trust your children with a Mr. C or a Mrs. Cleaver far more readily than with, oh, Alan Harper. In fact, "Happy Days," with its '50s setting and its blend of nice kids and kooks, was a direct descendant of "Leave It to Beaver," with Potsy and Ralph standing in for the likes of Eddie and Lumpy -- and each featuring a core, married, adult couple who could weather any adolescent storm.
Of course, the characters are written that way. But let's not underestimate the contribution actors make. A lot of people could have said, "Now, Ward ..." and not get Billingsley's inflections. A lot of people could have had one of Howard's outbursts and neglected to include a no-harm-meant undercurrent. And each was blessed with a good collaborator, Hugh Beaumont for Billingsley and Marion Ross for Bosley. Good actors playing decent people: there's always a place for that on our living-room TVs.