Father Knows Best may seem like the typical 1950s prime time family sitcom created to soothe the suffering masses recovering from World War II,, but there was clearly something special about this show. According to its fan page, fatherknowsbest.com, the show competed with 19 other family sitcoms that ran at the same time and survived them all.
Publicity photo for Father Knows Best featuring the cast: Top row, from left: Elinor Donahue, Robert Young, Jane Wyatt. Bottom row, from left: Lauren Chapin, and Billy Gray.
Father Knows Best was created and written by Ed James with the intention of portraying a cheerful, middle class family living in the Midwest with the focus on post-war recovery. According to Jeff Huyboom, author of the website Father Knows Best.Com, "The program was like a Norman Rockwell painting- filled with cheery lovable characters and a non-threatening humor that was middle America's idea of itself."
The goal of the writers of Father Knows Best seemed to be to present a family that reflected the type of families they were seeing in post-war 1950s America with parents that were capable of surviving their teenagers with their dignity intact and three children who were raised to know right from wrong and to treat their parents, neighbors, friends, and each other with respect.
A Weak Pilot
One of the many reasons the creators and writers of this show were able to accomplish their goal was due to the strong cast chosen for the television version of Father Knows Best and the characters, who were revised from the radio show to reflect a happier, stronger family unit.
It didn't start out this way. In fact, when Father Knows Best was first moved from radio to television it had a different cast with somewhat different characters. The show first aired on May 27, 1954 as part of The Ford Television Theatre, and it even had a different title: Keep it in the Family, which implies family unity, but also implies a troubled family with secrets. Robert Young was Tim Warren, head of the Warren family. He was married to Grace (Ellen Drew) and had an older daughter, Peggy (Sally Fraser), younger daughter, Patty (Tina Thompson) and son, Jeff (Gordon Gerbert). This show was intended to be the pilot for Father Knows Best. It ran for 26 minutes and focused on Peggy who dreams of becoming an actress and falls prey to a talent scout who is simply looking for people to join his acting school--a common ploy in both the acting and modeling fields. The show did not receive high ratings, but it wasn't cancelled. Instead, it was revamped and moved to CBS Television.
Move to CBS Where Father Really Does Know Best
The CBS series began on October 3, 1954, sponsored by Lorillard's Kent Cigarettes the first season and Scott Paper company when it moved to NBC. When the show returned to CBS it was sponsored by Lever Brothers. This is an interesting aspect of television shows of the 1950s--the connection between sponsors and content.
Robert Young is the anchor actor in this show. He played the father in all versions, and it is possible that it was his star status that kept the show on the air in the early years. By the time Robert Young appeared on the radio show he already had years of experience in radio and film. Robert Young always plays the father, James Anderson, Sr., and in Father Knows Best he is the loving provider and head of the family who works as a salesman and manager of General Insurance Company in Springfield, Illinois. He is always the voice of reason when he returns home from work to face the inevitable conflicts that arise in a typical family life. He is thoughtful, kind, and always has the right answer, offering solid advice to his children.
By the time Jane Wyatt joined the cast of Father Knows Best she also had a solid acting career including regular appearances on the classic anthology Robert Montgomery Presents. She plays Margaret Anderson, the loving housewife who also provides a voice of reason in the home, but generally waits for her husband to return from work so they can confer with each other and work as a parenting team.
Robert Young and Jane Wyman, the loving parents in Father Knows Best.
Elinor Donahue plays Betty "Princess" Anderson. In the television show she is called "Princess" by her father, it is not intended as a reflection of her character. She begins the show in high school, and when the show ends she is a student at State College in Springfield.
Billy Gray plays James "Bud" Anderson, Jr. who also begins the show in high school and ends the show at State College in Springfield. Lauren Chapin plays Kathy "Kitten" Anderson. Again, Kitten is a pet name from her father, a loving title and not intended to reflect her character. By the end of the show she is a high school student.
Robert Young left the series in 1960 to return to his film acting career, but it would have been difficult to continue the show much longer considering the ages of the children.
Father Knows Best cast from 1959.
Radio to Television
Although this is a blog about television, I think it's important to discuss the radio show because, unlike other radio-to television programs like Dragnet, the radio version of Father Knows Best was different from the television version.
Like so many television shows from the 1950s, Father Knows Best began as a radio show. The show was sponsored by General Foods and began on August 25, 1949. It was heard on Thursday evenings on NBC radio until March 25, 1954.
I have not heard the radio version of the show, but according to a Wikipedia article about the radio show, the radio version of Jim Anderson's (Robert Young) character was more sarcastic than supportive. Instead of playing the loving adviser to his children he was the ruler, or head of the house and sometimes said things to, and about his children that could be considered a bit mean to contemporary listeners.
For instance, he often said, "What a bunch of stupid children I have," the type of statement that would shock contemporary listeners, and possibly even the television audience of the 1950s as they were watching the show with the anticipation of something completely different--a demonstration of a happy home life. He also calls his children mean names.
Actor Robert Young in 1942.
Margaret (June Whitley, then Jean Vander Pyl) is pretty much the same character on radio as on television except, perhaps, when the plot shows her acting a bit naive. Betty (Rhonda Williams) is a boy-crazy snob who over-reacts to every situation. Bud (Ted Donaldson) is stuck answering the door every time a visitor arrives, which he despises, but this is his main role in the show. He apparently is an "All-American" type of boy in school, but his father, Jim, treats him with disrespect, often telling him to "jump in the lake." Bud responds in kind with comments such as, "Okay Dad. Which lake do you want me to jump into today?" Kathy (Norma Jean Nillson) whines, complains, and is generally ignored by the rest of the family.
In contrast, the radio show clearly has a different goal than the television version of Father Knows Best. The television version seems to be attempting to raise the spirits of a war-weary country and help its families return to their happy, normal, pre-war lives through example. The radio version is sarcastic entertainment focusing on a frustrated father and a family that in contemporary terms would be described as dysfunctional.
From the time Father Knows Best first aired on CBS until its final show, 203 episodes were produced. As a testament to its popularity, from 1960 to 1963, reruns of the show appeared on all three networks.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Father Knows Best won six well-earned Emmys and was nominated for 13 others. Jane Wyatt received three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Series and Robert Young received two Emmy Awards for Best Continuing Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic or Comedy Series. Peter Tewksbury received an Emmy and a few nominations for Best Direction and Elinor Donahue and Billy Gray were both nominated for Emmy Awards for their performances on the show.
- Father Knows Best. Creator: Ed James. Perf. Robert Young, Jane Wyatt, Billy Gray Lauren Chapin, Elinor Donahue. Rodney Young Productions/Screen Gems Television. Running Time: 30 min.
- Huyboom, Jeff. "History." fatherknowsbest.com Retrieved April 6, 2013.