The concept of a “TV dad” is among television’s most significant pieces of storytelling, whether it be a surrogate father (see James Avery as “Uncle Phil” in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), a single dad ready to provide (see John Marshall Jones as “Floyd Henderson” in Smart Guy) or a father prepared to raise his children in affluence while also preparing them for life (see Anthony Anderson as “Andre Johnson” in black-ish), Black TV dads have often represented stand-ins or the epitome of what fatherhood should look like.
John Amos, who portrayed the hardworking “James Evans” on Good Times, is among the early benchmarks for the archetype along with Red Foxx, whose “Fred Sanford” character on Sanford and Son stands as one of the pioneers of comedic Black fathers who had warm hearts, and plenty of jokes for their adult son. Foxx and Amos brought different gravity levels to the TV dad as Amos urged hard work amongst his three children, even as he grew weary of son JJ (Jimmy Walker) ’s time as an artist. Ultimately, Amos took to heart his position on television and the lasting influence his character and the Evans family would have on television shows and actors who followed.
“I was carrying the weight of being the first black father of a complete family, and I carried that responsibility seriously,” Amos told Vulture in 2015. “Maybe too much so. Norman [Lear] thought I was taking on too much of a burden with it. But it was my responsibility. I knew that millions of black people were watching. I knew that my own father was watching. My own children were watching. And I was not going to portray something that was less than redeeming.”
Evans was fired from Good Times in 1976 and written off, but his energy centralized on giving love to all of his children, not only the emerging star of the show. The position would give way to several prime lead characters in shows throughout the late ’70s, but it wasn’t until Bill Cosby’s portrayal as “Cliff Huxtable” in the eponymous The Cosby Show would the mantle Amos set with James Evans be taken to new heights.
The Cosby Show became a hit on NBC, and its spinoff, A Different World, gave way to father-like characters in dorm director Walker Oakes, played by comedian Sinbad, Vernon Gaines, played by Lou Meyers and Colonel Bradford Taylor, played by Glynn Thurman. Cliff Huxtable, the character, was viewed as America’s Dad, regardless of what Cosby did in his personal life. Huxtable was the patriarch of an upper-middle-class Black family, and even if he may not have been the best father, he was a present one, which was good enough for 1980s America on both sides of the racial coin.
“I was carrying the weight of being the first black father of a complete family, and I carried that responsibility seriously.” – John Amos
As time progressed in the ’90s, the crown for best Black TV Dad switched from Cosby to Avery. His Philip Banks may have been affluent and weary of his nephew, but when the time came down to it, Avery’s demeanor not only gave consciousness and power to the Banks clan but helped shape Will Smith’s career as an actor.
“He strove to present an Uncle Phil that everybody wishes was their uncle,” Joseph Marcell, the actor who played “Geoffrey,” said following Avery’s death in 2013. “[He] believed the show was important because the “striving of the African-American ought to have been shown on television. What he has done for television, for African-Americans on television is unsurpassable.”
Avery’s serious cool with Philip Banks didn’t immediately translate to the next popular TV dad, John Witherspoon on The Wayans Bros. in the late 1990s and early 2000s but Witherspoon’s style aligned with Garrett Morris’ uncle/fatherly portrayal of “Uncle Junior King” for The Jamie Foxx Show. The TV dad mantle didn’t get reshaped again until the mid-2000s when Damon Wayans and Bernie Mac gave unique twists to the concept with My Wife and Kids and The Bernie Mac Show. In a 2020 article for Blavity, writer Amanda Monroe marked on the uniqueness of Mac blending his real life and comedy to craft The Bernie Mac Show and show how love and admiration as a father didn’t have to arrive from biological parenting, in the same vein as Avery’s Uncle Phil.
“[He] showcased The Bernie Mac Show as an unsung beacon of Black male fatherhood,” Monroe wrote. “Black fathers on TV have never been unusual but this brand of fatherhood, the image of a Black man raising children that weren’t biologically his, was actually groundbreaking.”
Now, Black fatherhood on television has grown in various shapes and sizes. There were uncomfortable struggles with addiction and providing as seen on The Corner, the HBO series which was a precursor to the widely beloved The Wire and brief glimpses of how community plays a role in fatherhood on Lincoln Heights. In Anderson’s case for black-ish, there are elements of what Mac shared on his show which Dre Johnson has adopted and made work in his mold.
What Black fatherhood has looked like hasn’t wholly needed to be biological. It has been adoptive, caring and nurturing and in some ways, from Snowfall to even P-Valley, unorthodox. Amos’ thoughts and beliefs on the weight of showcasing a “good” Black dad have flowed into nearly every character who has graced the screen and called themselves a father.
Currently, Adrian Holmes, who portrays Uncle Phil in the rebooted version of The Fresh Prince titled Bel-Air, considers his role a “love letter” to Avery.
“You can’t step into his shoes,” he told TODAY earlier this month. “I’m just kind of creating my own. For me, it’s a tribute to him, a way of saying thank you to him and what he did for us.”
The power of being a Black father on television comes with the eyes and inherited belief you represent Black dad’s across the globe. From generation to generation, each actor who assumed the role gave their energy towards it, highlighting a more significant representation for Black fathers everywhere.
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