Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, June 25, 2021

Favorite TV Dads, Part 4 of 4: Jack Pearson

Fans of the TV series This Is Us know which character provides the glue holding it all together. Sadly and ironically, that character is dead.

This might be the only show in history where a lead character can die yet still appear in every episode … where the actor portraying him still has a job. No, he’s not a ghost. Like a lot of intriguing books and movies these days, this series is written in split-time. With the brilliance and technology only available in TV and movies, nearly every episode leaps from present-day scenes to flashbacks and occasionally to flash-forwards. The viewer can keep track of which decade they’re in by the styles, and—in some cases—different actors portraying the characters as children or teenagers.

Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson

The family patriarch is Viet Nam vet, Jack Pearson. The first episode opens on his 36th birthday in 1980, the same day his wife Rebecca delivers their much-anticipated triplets—two boys and a girl. When one of the boys is stillborn, this white couple ends up taking home their two surviving children as well as an African American newborn left at a fire hall. Not until all the characters’ stories converge at the end do you realize you’ve also been watching the 36th birthday of those three kids.

Jack and Rebecca raise the kids as “The Big Three,” doing their best to learn and honor Randall’s heritage as he navigates life in a white environment. The writers brilliantly create contemporary and historical scenes that weave in and out, raising major questions at the end of each episode to compel the viewer to watch “just one more.”

Everyone’s hero, Jack, dies when the kids are seventeen. The writers know better than to make Jack perfectly flawless. Flashback scenes reveal his traumatic past with an abusive father, PTSD from the war, alcoholism, and gambling. But love at first sight of Rebecca conquers all. Jack becomes an overcomer who can love his family well, who lays aside his owns dreams to provide for them, who dispenses wisdom and devotion and guidance by the bucketful. Every wedding anniversary, though his wife goes to great lengths to give him a special gift, he always manages to one-up her with a grand gesture requiring superhuman forethought. He creates happy and funny memories for his kids, who carry on the traditions so that even the grandchildren who never met Jack feel they know him. What’s not to love?

Except for the 1950s scenes from his childhood, Jack Pearson is portrayed by Milo Ventimiglia. Born in 1977 to an actual Viet Nam veteran, Ventimiglia was born with damaged facial nerves causing the left side of his mouth to remain immobile. The result is a distinctive and charming lopsided grin that has clearly not hindered his career. In an interview with US Weekly, Ventimiglia said that after playing Jack in his 20s, 30s, and 40s, he feels he knows Jack so well, he sometimes must focus on separating himself from the character.

This Is Us will end with Season Six next year, and producers promise a satisfying ending—a guarantee far easier to make in the world of fiction than in real life. Fictional fathers, whatever their struggles, can provide inspiration for what a family can be. The best ones call us to a higher level of decency and deepen our longing for all that’s right and good.

The Bible says a lot about men of integrity. I like this plain and simple paraphrase of Proverbs 20:7: “God-loyal people, living honest lives, make it much easier for their children.”

Friday, June 18, 2021

Favorite TV Dads, Part 3 of 4: Charles Ingalls

As a little girl, I had a huge crush on Little Joe Cartwright of Bonanza. When I grew older, I was smitten with Charles Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie. Are you sensing a theme here? By the time Highway to Heaven came along, I had my own real-life husband and was too busy chasing three young children to watch television. One summer, however, a friend loaned us a complete set of Little House VHS tapes. The kids and I watched an episode or two every night before bed to unwind after a long hot day of work and play.

Who could wish for a better husband or father than Charles Ingalls? I read the books. It’s not possible that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real pa was as handsome or as consistently wise and thoughtful as the TV character—in fact, the man’s wanderlust would have driven me crazy. Still, I was not immune to falling in love with the on-screen version, fictional though he was.

The real-life actor, Michael Landon, experienced his share of tragedy in his 54 years with us. His birth name was Eugene Maurice Orowitz. If having a Jewish father and Catholic mother wouldn’t present enough challenges, his mother suffered from mental illness. According to his unofficial biography, Michael Landon: His Triumph and Tragedy, the childhood stress of worrying about his mother and her frequent suicide attempts caused Landon to wet the bed. The stress was compounded by the humiliation of having his mother hang the wet sheets outside his bedroom window in full view of his friends.

His adult life certainly wasn’t without strife, either, despite the colossal success of his show business career. A chain-smoker and heavy drinker, he divorced twice and died much too young of pancreatic cancer in 1991.

The Little House on the Prairie show ran for nine seasons, from 1974 to 1983. Although it had its comedic moments, the show was primarily a drama that succeeded in bringing viewers to tears nearly every episode. Set during the 1870s-90s, it covered many of the same topics the books did, like poverty, blindness, death, and faith—and many that the books did not: adoption, alcoholism, racism, drug addiction, leukemia, child abuse, and rape. Michael Landon not only starred as Pa Ingalls, he wrote, directed, and produced many of the episodes—some of which were remakes of episodes he’d written for Bonanza. In each one, Pa’s character shone. He modeled hard work, humor, contentment, courage, and selfless concern for others. Besides, who can resist a guy who can both play the fiddle and build things out of wood? Or a life where problems are solved within the span of a one-hour episode?

Apart from Michael Landon’s looks and charm, what was it about the character of Charles Ingalls that so appealed to viewers of every age and gender? Could the heartbreaks of Landon’s childhood have helped him tap into something we all long for—a father who is not only humble and down-to-earth but dependable, consistently loving and good-natured, while maintaining integrity and valuing family above all? Whose wife and children can rest secure in his unconditional love? Perhaps deeper still lies the desire to be that sort of person, even though every single one of us falls short. Ironically, at the time of his death, Landon was working on a new series about father/son relationships across three generations. I bet it would have been a hit.

Regardless how much we all long for it, I have a hunch nobody on this planet has ever had or been a dad as perfect as Pa Ingalls. Could it be that the deepest part of our hearts recognizes its need for our heavenly father, our Creator—the only one who can or will deliver?

This Father’s Day, take time to consider your relationship with your earthly father, for better or worse. Then ask God to show you a little of his own character as a loving parent. See what he reveals.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Favorite TV Dads, Part 2 of 4: Jed Clampett

Buddy Ebsen as the lovable Jed Clampett
As fathers go, I doubt Jed Clampett would be anyone’s first choice, particularly if being a well-educated, sharp dresser was part of the criteria. But there’s no doubt Jed loved his daughter, Elly May, or that his more sophisticated neighbors were no match when it came to Jed’s practical wit and common sense.

The Beverly Hillbillies ran from 1962-1971 with the patriarch Jed Clampett played by Buddy Ebsen. My family never missed the show, and records tell us few other North Americans did either. For eight of its nine seasons, it ranked among the top 20 most-watched programs on television. Twice, it ranked as the number one series of the year, and 16 of its episodes remain among the 100 most-watched television episodes in history.

Born Christian Ludolf Ebsen Jr. on April 2, 1908, Ebsen’s career spanned seven decades. He might be the only person in history who wanted to become a doctor but whose mother persuaded him to go into show business. If you ever watched any of the Mickey Mouse animation from the 1930s, you’ll find it interesting that Disney animators filmed Buddy Ebsen dancing and used that footage to choreograph Mickey’s steps.

With his lanky body and whimsical dancing, it’s no surprise that Ebsen was cast alongside Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Although originally cast as the scarecrow, before filming began, he traded roles with the tin man. Alas, Ebsen became seriously ill due to the aluminum dust in his makeup. While he recovered in the hospital, producers recast the part and invented a safer method of turning the tin man silver. Since the songs had already been recorded, it is Ebsen’s voice you hear when the tin man sings “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”

Twenty-two years later, the role of Jed Clampett made Ebsen famous. With little formal book-learnin’, the good-natured widowed hillbilly begins his rags-to-riches story when an oil company talks him into selling his swamp with its massive oil pool. He moves to Beverly Hills with his daughter, his mother-in-law, and his nephew Jethro (technically his cousin’s son).

I think my all-time favorite Jed Clampett scene comes from the first episode where he learns he’s suddenly a multi-millionaire. He asks his cousin, Pearl, whether she thinks he ought to move away.

“Jed, how can you even ask?” She says. “Look around you. You’re eight miles from your nearest neighbour. You’re overrun with skunks, possums, coyotes, bobcats. You use kerosene lamps for light, you cook on a wood stove summer and winter, you’re drinkin’ homemade moonshine, washin’ with homemade lye soap. Your bathroom is fifty feet from the house, and you ask should you move?”

To which Jed responds, “Yeah. I reckon you’re right. Man’d be a dang fool to leave all this!”

In another episode, Granny wins dancing lessons from a con man and his wife. Watching them dance, Granny comments, “They ain’t no Vilma and Buddy Ebsen.”

Jed responds, “Who?” (Buddy and his sister Vilma formed a vaudeville song-and-dance act long before the TV show made him a household name.)

Throughout the series, Jed plays the straight man to Granny’s impulsive and cantankerous ways, Elly May’s extensive collection of critters, and Jethro’s pursuits of the best career for meeting pretty girls. Viewers loved Jed for his kind, patient heart and innocence.

After a second long-running TV series as Barnaby Jones, Ebsen retired in 1999. In 2003, he passed away at the age of 95. He once said, “Thanks to The Beverly Hillbillies show, I can walk on any stage in the English-speaking world and say, ‘Well, doggies!’ and I’m home free.”

Perhaps we could all be a little more “home free” if we learned to be as content and kind, whatever our circumstances, as Jed Clampett.