Father Figures: Mystery Television Fathers Past & Present

Jun 11, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

As we consider Father’s Day, it is obvious the role that fathers have played in a staple of television comedy: Father Knows Best, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Parenthood, Modern Family. But they are also integral to many a plot twist and emotional conflict driving drama as well, particularly in the crime and spy genre.

To find the right person to play the father of a well-known character is a challenge to casting directors. It must be someone who is physically and characteristically believable. When they succeed, the results can make a show. It has also resulted in some plum parts for excellent character actors on the other side of 50.

Flashbacks — Best Detective & Dad Teams from the Past

Ellery Queen — Mystery writer Ellery Queen (Jim Hutton) helps his father, Inspector Richard Queen (David Wayne) solve crimes in NYC.

Diagnosis Murder — Dr. Mark Sloan (Dick Van Dyke) helps his police detective son Steve (Barry Van Dyke). (Extra points for a father and son detecting team played by a father and son acting team.)tv

Psych — It was Corbin Bernson as the cop/father, Henry Spencer, who initially draws his son, Shawn, into crime fighting. Bernson was also the father of Glades cop Jim Longworth (Matt Passmore).

Veronica Mars — Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) is a real private detective after losing his job as sheriff and his teen-age daughter Veronica (Kristin Bell) picks up a lot of his tricks while adding a few or her own.

rockfordThe Rockford Files — Noah Beery, Jr. as Rocky – Jim’s truck driver father often gets involved in his son’s cases as a sidekick, a cause of concern and a conscience for Jim Rockford. One of the all time great dad characters. (Fatherly note: Noah Beery Jr. appeared with his actor father in the John Wayne movie The Trail Beyond (1934). Beery, Sr., was also Mae West’s boyfriend (dumped in favor of Cary Grant) in She Done Him Wrong (1933).

Current Shows — Complicated Fathers

Blue Bloods (A Dynasty of Detecting Dads) Henry Reagan (Len Cariou) is a former beat cop and Police Commissioner who now gives fatherly advice to his son Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck), the current Police Commissioner. Frank’s sons are both in the NYPD and Detective Danny Reagan (Donnie Wahlberg) has two sons of his own. This could go on for a long time.

NCIS(Conflicted Dads) If you are a character on a long running series, eventually your father will show up in one of the plot lines. NCIS writers have mined this area most successfully aided by some inspired casting.tv

Gibbs (Curmudgeon DNA) Ralph Waite was perfect as the father of Leroy Jethro Gibbs. He’d had a little practice as the patriarch of the Walton clan, but got to channel a grumpier and more tortured side as the elder Gibbs. (Fatherly note: Waite was also the grandfather of Booth on Bones.)

DiNozzo (Pere et Fils) Robert Wagner has a great time as Anthony DiNozzo’s wheeler-dealer father flying in from time to time to wreak havoc. Clear to see where the DiNozzo charm came from. Dad’s contacts and activities prove to be occasionally helpful, but more often a complication for his son.

David Family Values(Death and Betrayal) Michael Nouri was Mossad officer and spy mastermind Eli David. A dark and stern father, he trained Ziva and her half brother from birth to be spies and assassins. There were tender moments, but more often scenes of shocked revelation as Ziva discovers what her father is capable of. In the running for worst father.

McGee and the Admiral Jamey Sheridan, played Admiral McGee who never approved of his son’s job as an “overpaid paper pusher.” Tim’s letter to his father in the “House Rules” episode is his attempt to explain what he is doing on a current case, combined with memories of his relationship with his dad and with Gibbs, the unit’s father figure. (Fatherly note: Sheridan also played Ozzie Nelson in a TV movie and the father of Oliver Queen aka Green Arrow on Arrow)

Guest Star Dads — Sometimes Father’s Just Show Up

Bones — Max Keen (Ryan O’Neal) played the long lost father of Temperance Brennan. A crook and a killer, he still had protective parental feelings.

Castle — James Brolin had a fine turn as Richard Castle’s mysterious CIA agent father who shows up at odd times. Scott Paulin has a recurring role as Beckett’s father who became an alcoholic after his wife’s murder and was saved by his daughter pushing him into recovery. tv

Home with Holmes?

Elementary — John Noble as Sherlock Holmes father Morland has brought a mix of vulnerability, cunning, and ruthlessness to Elementary while revealing elements of Sherlock’s complicated youth.

sherlockSherlock – The BBC takes an entirely different tack, posing that Ma and Pa Holmes were quite ordinary people who didn’t quite understand their extraordinary sons. Benedict Cumberbatch’s real parents (both actors) play the character’s parents, stopping by for a visit, and chased out the door in favor a new case.

Disappointing Dads

Rizzoli & Isles — Paddy Doyle (John Doman) a Boston crime boss is Maura’s biological father and her adopted father Arthur Isles (David Ogden Stiers) shows up as a suspect in a murder case. TV

Jane’s father, Frank, Sr. (Chazz Palmienteri), may run a successful plumbing business, but when he divorces Angela and then tries to get their decades-old marriage annulled so he can remarry in the Catholic church, all of his kids write him off.

Miss Fisher Mysteries — Phryne Fisher’s father (Pip Miller) turns out to be a con man and a gambler who she has to save from unsavory and dangerous creditors.

Blacklist (Who’s your Daddy?) It has long been teased that Reddington (James Spader) may be Liz’s (Megan Boone) father, until a plot surprise in this year’s season finale twisted the question of her father into another direction.

Worst Father of All Time

Scandal — Eli Pope aka Rowan Pope aka Command (Joe Morton) is the father from hell. He bullies and tortures his acolytes into submission calling them his sons, meanwhile maneuvering and murdering to control his secret empire and sometimes his daughter, Olivia Pope.

And Maybe the Best of the Season…

Mysteries of Laura — Robert Klein as Leo, Laura’s father, is first seen playing the harmonica in his underwear and stomping his foot to entertain the kids. His daughter is exasperated (as Debra Messing does so well), but she needs a baby-sitter. In exchange she might have to take a little fatherly advice, and he might be right. A lovely example of Father Knowing Best, and a totally believable father and daughter moment. tv

Fathers — Remembering and Imagining

My real life father could be described as a portly version of Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard, same military demeanor, diction, and haircut. He also reveled in his Scots background, so being played by an actor named Stewart would have appealed to him.

Who would you cast as your father? Real or imagined?

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways, & short stories in our mystery section.


Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.


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