Perhaps no other family-based situation comedy from the 1950's fits the stereotype of the sage parents doling out much-needed wisdom to their squeaky-clean but occasionally misguided children quite like Father Knows Best, set in an alternate universe where serious issues include which boy to date, trading fair with friends from the neighborhood, and what the neighbors will think about mother's housekeeping. The series began on radio in 1949 with Robert Young in the title role but with an entirely different cast from the TV version and a question mark at the end of the title. Young's character in the radio version was more acerbic, even resorting to calling his children "stupid" at times. The show was piloted for television on the May 27, 1954 episode of The Ford Television Theatre with Young again in the title role and another different cast for the rest of the family. The series then began its regular run on October 3, 1954 with Young again as father and insurance salesman Jim Anderson, Jane Wyatt as his wife Margaret, Elinor Donahue as older daughter Betty, Billy Gray as son Bud, or James Anderson, Jr., and Lauren Chapin as younger daughter Kathy. The family lived in the mythical midwest town of Springfield (Simpsons fans will note the irony). The series was not an immediate success, and its original sponsor, Kent Cigarettes, was disappointed with poor ratings and dropped it after one season on CBS. However, a popular outcry of support persuaded Scott Paper Company and NBC to pick up the series the next fall and the show ran for another five seasons, ending in May 1960. The show's ratings also improved with each season so that by the final season it ranked number 6 overall. Despite the show's momentum, Young in particular was ready for a change, but the show continued to run in prime-time repeats for another three years.
In the television version of the show, Young's character is much more understanding and wise, though he occasionally makes mistakes. In "Time to Retire" (March 7, 1960), Jim is assigned by the home office to tell long-time colleague and friend Arthur Higgins that he must retire from the company on his 65th birthday, per company policy. But because he is such good friend with Higgins, he tries to soften the blow by inviting him over for a family dinner, giving him a lavish fishing set as a birthday present, and having Margaret bake him a scrumptious birthday cake. Every time during the evening when he is about to break the news to Higgins, Jim puts it off, thinking the moment isn't quite right, and thus never tells him, leaving the job to his secretary Miss Thomas, who accidentally lets it slip when Higgins gets to work before Jim the next morning. His sentimentality and dithering cause him to evade his professional responsibility. It falls to Bud to go off and find Higgins, who has run off to brood, and bring him around to see that the end of his work at Jim's insurance company is actually an opportunity for a new career by starting a competing business. But these slip-ups are few and far between. More often, Jim is the voice of reason and discipline when his children want to make unwise choices.
However, the number of times that the Anderson children are mean, unfair, or deceitful makes one wonder how effective Jim and Margaret are as parents. In "Blind Date" (April 18, 1960) Betty is incensed when classmates set her up on a blind date with clumsy hayseed Rudy Kissler and she retaliates against them by acting as though she is happy to date him, leading him on as she goes with him to every school function thereafter until he honestly tells her he loves her, then is devastated when he finds out from her prankster classmates that their whole relationship is based on a gag. Her treatment of Rudy as a mere tool to exact revenge on her classmates hardly shows the signs of a virtuous upbringing. And Bud doesn't give a second thought to running up a huge hotel bill when he is away from home on a debate team trip merely to impress a girl in "Bud Lives It Up" (May 9, 1960), until he gets caught and faces expulsion from school. Kathy also gives in to innate greed when she destroys the photograph of another family who are competing for a free trip to Hawaii so that they won't make the contest deadline in "Family Contest" (April 4, 1960). All of these episodes become teaching moments for Jim, but one has to wonder why his children continue to make such poor choices when they are college and junior high school students. In fact, the other children and young adults that the Anderson brood come in conflict with are often much more mature, but then, if the Andersons were better behaved, their father wouldn't have weekly opportunities to show his brilliance.
Despite co-producer Eugene Rodney's belief in the series--he once stated that any TV writer who didn't get misty eyed at the thought of a young girl putting a baby bird back in its nest would never work for him--Young had grown tired of the grind of producing a weekly series, at least by season 5, and was the principal reason the series ended after its sixth season. In the producers' official press release, reprinted in its entirety in the May 28, 1960 issue of TV Guide, Rodney and Young stated there were several reasons behind their decision to end the series. First and foremost was the fact that the children had grown up and would naturally be leaving home, thus destroying the rationale for the series and making the title absurd. And yet, other family-based series--The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and My Three Sons--wound up running much longer and found ways to evolve the family dynamics to make sense. In fact, given that Rodney and Young had discussed ending the show a full year before they actually did, they wound up doing a poor job in bringing the series to closure. The last 20 episodes, which aired in calendar year 1960, included four episodes that were mere flashbacks, consisting largely of footage from episodes aired years earlier with snippets at beginning and end of the characters circa 1960 saying in effect, "remember the time that so-and-so did such-and-such?" Despite the producers' claim that the series was an "organic" living, growing thing, the series has little continuity from one episode to the next; the episodes, like most series of the era, are self-contained. For example, in their parting press release, the producers say they considered having the older daughter, Betty, get married, and in "Betty's Career Problem" (April 25, 1960) that seems to be what they suggest: Betty has apparently had a competition going for some years with classmate Cliff Bowman (whom we've never heard of before). But when they both compete for the same assistant buyer's job at a local department store, Betty realizes that she really doesn't want a career but rather a husband, and when she is dressed as a bride in the department store's fashion show, with Clifford playing the groom, she tells him there is something she is better at than he is--being a bride. When they kiss, an elderly lady in the audience says it seems real, and Jim replies that it is. When the woman asks how he would know that, Margaret says that he is the father of the bride. Yet in the very next episode, "Bud Lives It Up," Betty is back in college and dating the head of the school debate team.
The second reason that Rodney and Young gave for canceling the series was that they had gone higher in the ratings with each successive season and they did not want fall back and slide into mediocrity. As mentioned above, the show did make it all the way up to the 6th spot in the 1959-60 season, which would have been hard to top in the coming years. But a couple of the episodes in that last season also seem to suggest that the producers were unhappy with the way the show was being characterized and were concerned about its legacy. In "Togetherness" (January 25, 1960), Jim is selected to be the subject of an insurance industry magazine article about how a thriving family life helps make an insurance salesman more successful. Only the reporter sent to Springfield by the magazine finds that the Andersons do not at all fit the stereotypical mold of familial togetherness. In fact, the reporter decides to write an entirely different story until at the very end he comes in on all of the family members pitching in to help Bud out of a mess he'd gotten into at school. Still, the article says that the family has their own brand of togetherness that doesn't fit the usual pattern, and Jim and Bud both remark after reading the finished article that they are glad it didn't make them look sappy. And yet the team effort at the end of the episode and the way all the loose ends are tied up neatly by episode's end is the very definition of TV family sappiness. In "Jim's Big Surprise" (February 29, 1960), Jim tells the family that he has a big surprise to announce later that afternoon and makes them all reconvene to hear the news at 4:00. Each of them imagines that the surprise is some kind of financial windfall that will please them personally, and they are initially disappointed to learn that it is only that Jim has been named Father of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. After being shamed by Margaret for being so selfish, they rally to give Jim a special dinner before he and Margaret go to the award ceremony, with each of the children giving him a present of some achievement they have earned as the result of his fatherly guidance. Jim sums things up by saying that they may not be the richest family, but they are surely the most normal. While he may be correct that his children are normal in being self-serving on first impulse, the Andersons are more the epitome of squeaky clean morality than the definition of normal. In both of these episodes, it's as if Rodney and Young are trying to tell the viewers that the Andersons are just plain folks, with all the faults and blemishes of the average American family, rather than the standard that all families should aspire to. But contrasting the characters' on-screen behavior with the real lives of the actors who played them shows how far from normal the series actually was.
The sweeping orchestral theme song, with spoken voice over announcing the main actors, was composed by Indiana clarinetist Irving Friedman, who began playing in New York jazz bands back in the 1920s, including time in Paul Whiteman's orchestra. After appearing in the Whiteman film King of Jazz, Friedman decided to stay in Hollywood and formed one of the first regular studio orchestras for Warner Brothers, becoming head of the group in 1934. He moved over to MGM in 1943, then on to Eagle-Lion three years later. Eventually he formed his own music company, Primrose, which he ran while working as music supervisor on Father Knows Best, until finally selling it when he retired in 1963. He also served as music supervisor on The Range Rider, The Gene Autry Show, Captain Midnight, Tate, Dennis the Menace, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel. He died November 21, 1981 at the age of 82.
A fan web site with a wealth of information and photos from the series can be found at fatherknowsbest.com.
All six seasons of the series have been released on DVD by Shout! Factoryhttp://www.shoutfactory.com/.
The actor whom Louis B. Mayer once described as having "no sex appeal" was born in Chicago, grew up in California, and broke into movies in 1931 after being discovered by an MGM talent scout while touring with a theatre stock company. Young's first appearance was in a Charlie Chan movie and his early career included being an extra in Keystone Cops movies. He had an extremely prolific career in films through the 30s and 40s, appearing mostly in B grade films or in supporting roles. However, he had a few juicier parts, such as in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent, in the first Mr. Belvedere film Sitting Pretty, The Enchanted Cottage, and H.M. Pulham, Esq., but by the end of the 40s the number of roles began to wane and he switched to radio with Father Knows Best in 1949. After five years on radio, the series moved to television with Young the only actor from the original cast that made the transition to the small screen.
Despite Young's desire to leave the series in 1960, he was back on the air with a new series in the fall of 1961 titled Window on Main Street, which unfortunately lasted only a single season. After that disappointment, Young had scant film and TV appearances throughout much of the rest of the 1960s as Young, a nearly lifelong alcoholic and clinically depressed, suffered a nervous breakdown in 1966. However, he triumphantly returned to television in the fall of 1969 in the lead role of Marcus Welby, M.D., which ran for seven seasons. After the series ended, he did two Father Knows Best reunion TV movies in 1977 and two Marcus Welby reunion TV movies in 1984 and 1988, retiring from acting after the last of these. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide in 1991, the same year in which he reportedly recovered from his 45-year bout with depression. He died of respiratory failure on July 21, 1998 at the age of 91.
Born in New Jersey and raised in New York City, Wyatt was the daughter of an investment banker and a drama critic in a family that traced its roots back to Rufus King, one of the original signers of the U.S. Constitution. She was also distantly related to Eleanor Roosevelt. After college she joined the apprentice school of a theatre group in Stockbridge, MA; she eventually made her way to Broadway and from there was signed to a movie contract by Universal Pictures, making her film debut in 1934. Amongst her most notable roles were the female leads in Lost Horizon, Gentleman's Agreement, and None But the Lonely Heart. Her career suffered in the 1950s because of her vocal opposition to the tactics of Communist hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and she was considered suspicious for hosting a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet during World War II, though she did so under instruction from President Roosevelt. Though she had roughly a dozen TV theatre anthology shows in the 1950s, Father Knows Best was her first regular role on the small screen, a role for which she won three Emmy Awards.
After the series ended its 6-year run, Wyatt had several guest appearances on various TV shows and an occasional film role throughout the 1960s, though none more notable than her appearance as Spock's human mother in the Star Trek episode "Journey to Babel," a role she reprised in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986. In the 1980s she also had a recurring role as Katherine Auschlander on St. Elsewhere, and her last television appearance came in a 1992 episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. She died of natural causes October 20, 2006 at the age of 96.
Born in Tacoma, WA, Donahue's mother was a theatrical costumer who had her taking tap dance lessons from the age of 16 months. By age 5 she was signed by Universal to appear in dance choruses. At age 15 she appeared in a supporting role in the Elizabeth Taylor film Love Is Better Than Ever, and the next year she was a musical judge on the ABC television program Jukebox Jury. But her big break came being cast as the Anderson's elder daughter Betty on Father Knows Best at age 17 in 1954. In a January 9, 1960 cover story for TV Guide, Donahue revealed that her chance at the Father Knows Best role came after she broke her ankle and was unable to travel to Las Vegas as part of a chorus line. By the time the TV Guide article appeared, Donahue, then 22, had been married and divorced from sound technician Richard Smith and was living with her mother and 3-year-old son Brian. She would soon thereafter marry Father Knows Best executive producer Harry Ackerman, 25 years older than her, with the marriage lasting until his death in 1991.
After Father Knows Best ended, Donahue was immediately snapped up to play Andy Griffith's love interest as Ellie Walker in the first season of The Andy Griffith Show, but she decided to leave the show after its first season despite having originally signed a 3-year contract. She has had a busy acting career ever since: besides the occasional guest appearances on various TV shows and an occasional film role, she played Joan Randall on the series Many Happy Returns in 1964-65, Dr. Jennifer Ethrington in The Flying Nun in 1968-70, Miriam Welby on The Odd Couple from 1972-75, Jane Mulligan on Mulligan's Stew in 1977, Susan Baxter on Beans Baxter in 1987, Chris Elliott's character's mother Gladys Peterson on Get a Life from 1990-92, Jane Seymour's mother Rebecca Quinn on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman from 1993-1997, and most recently Judge Marie Anderson on The Young and the Restless in 2010-2011. In 1998, she published In the Kitchen With Elinor Donahue, which recounted her memories from her acting career along with 150 of her favorite recipes. She is currently married to her third husband, since 1992, contractor Louis Genevrino.
Gray was born in Hollywood; his mother, an actress often uncredited, had him appearing in films from the age of 5 when he had a bit part in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Amongst his most notable early film appearances are in the Doris Day musical On Moonlight Bay, playing Jim Thorpe as a child in Jim Thorpe -- All American, and as the young boy Bobby Benson befriended by alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still. He also began making television appearances in 1950 and was slated to play the role of Tagg Oakley on Annie Oakley before the role as Bud Anderson on Father Knows Best came along. Despite his good fortune as a result of the series, keeping in contact with the other cast members after the series ended, and appearing in the two reunion TV movies in 1977, Gray blasted the series in a 1983 interview:
"I wish there was some way I could tell the kids not to believe it. The dialogue, the situations, the characters they were all totally false. The show did everyone a disservice. The girls were always trained to use their feminine wiles, to pretend to be helpless to attract men. The show contributed to a lot of the problems between men and women that we see today. . . . I think we were all well motivated, but what we did was run a hoax. 'Father Knows Best' purported to be a reasonable facsimile of life. And the bad thing is, the model is so deceitful. It usually revolved around not wanting to tell the truth, either out of embarrassment, or not wanting to hurt someone. If I could say anything to make up for all the years I lent myself to (that), it would be, 'You Know Best.'"
After the series ended, he made several guest appearances on various TV shows, but his career suffered a setback in 1962 when he was arrested for marijuana possession. When he appeared as a heroin dealer in the 1971 film Dusty and Sweets Magee, famous film critic Leonard Maltin reported that Gray had been recruited for the role by actual drug dealers and addicts and continued publishing this information in his popular film guide for two decades until Gray sued him and won. Besides his acting career, Gray has been a dirt bike racing competitor and an inventor, creating such items as a self-massager, unique guitar pick, and a candle holder for jack o'lanterns. He is currently a promoter for the revival of Class A dirt bike racing.
Chapin, born in Los Angeles, lived through a child actor's hell, being the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a sexual predator father, as detailed in her autobiography Father Does Know Best. She was sexually abused by her father as early as age 3, but after her parents divorced due to her mother's alcoholism, she ran away to live with him again at age 11 because she couldn't stand life with her mother. Living with father the second time was no better as he resumed the sexual abuse, causing her to run away again and marry a boy she didn't love. From there she descended into heroin addiction, prostitution and jail time. Consequently, other than her years on Father Knows Best and its reunions, Chapin's acting career is sparse. She won five Jr. Emmy's as best child actress for her role as Kathy Anderson. Producer Eugene Rodney once remarked that she was cast for the role because she had little previous acting experience, which he felt caused her performance to appear more natural.
She is now a manager for actors and singers, performs in a version of Father Knows Best on cruise ships, is a licensed and ordained Christian evangelist, and an advocate for the state of Israel. She also sells memorabilia from her television days on her web site laurenchapin.com.
Notable Guest Stars
Season 6, Episode 15, "Bud Hides Behind a Skirt": Forrest Lewis (Mr. Peavey on The Great Gildersleeve) plays an unnamed traffic court clerk. Bob Anderson (Park Street, Jr. on The Court of Last Resort and Aeneas MacLinahan on Wichita Town) plays a traffic cop. Larry Gates (starred in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Some Came Running, The Sand Pebbles, and In the Heat of the Night and played Harlan Billy Lewis on Guiding Light) plays a judge.
Season 6, Episode 16, "Togetherness": Don Keefer (shown on the left, starred in Death of a Salesman, Hellcats of the Navy, and Sleeper and played George on Angel) plays magazine reporter Mel Buford.
Season 6, Episode 17, " Second Best": Billy Hummert (Cornell Clayton on Margie) plays little boy Gordon. Ralph Faulkner (played Woodrow Wilson in three 1918 films and was fight choreographer for The Three Musketeers (1935), Captain Blood, and Zorro's Fighting Legion) plays Betty's fencing instructor.
Season 6, Episode 18, "Kathy's Big Deception": Reba Waters (Francesca on Peck's Bad Girl) plays Kathy's friend Patty.
Season 6, Episode 19, "Cupid Knows Best": Katina Paxinou (shown on the right, Greek actress who won the 1944 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in For Whom the Bell Tolls and also appeared in The Inheritance and Mourning Becomes Electra) plays flower shop owner Mama.
Season 6, Episode 20, "The Big Test": Jack Harris (starred in Burden of Truth, Squad Car, and Stakeout! and played the court clerk 8 times on Perry Mason) plays Bud's teacher Mr. Glover.
Season 6, Episode 21, "Jim's Big Surprise": Marion Ross (shown on the left, played Marion Cunningham on Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi, Emily Heywod/Hayward on The Love Boat, Sophie Berger on Brooklyn Bridge, Beulah Carey on The Drew Carey Show, and the voice of Mrs. Lopart on Handy Manny) plays Kathy's diving instructor Miss Abrams.
Season 6, Episode 22, "Time to Retire": Charles Ruggles (shown on the right, starred in Charley's Aunt, The Girl Habit, If I Had a Million, Alice in Wonderland, Ruggles of Red Gap, Bringing Up Baby, and Son of Flubber and played Lowell Redlings Farquhar on The Beverly Hillbillies) plays Jim's colleague Arthur Higgins. Sarah Selby (Aunt Gertrude on The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure, Lucille Vanderlip on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and Ma Smalley on Gunsmoke) plays Jim's secretary Miss Thomas.
Season 6, Episode 23, "Bud, the Speculator": Jeffrey Silver (Rodney on The Charles Farrell Show and Jimmy Lloyd on The Bob Cummings Show) plays Bud's friend Eddie.
Season 6, Episode 24, "The $500 Letter": Sarah Selby (see "Time to Retire" above) returns as Miss Thomas.
Season 6, Episode 26, "Family Contest": Stuart Erwin (shown on the left, starred in Men Without Women, Make Me a Star, Women Are Trouble, and The Bride Came C.O.D. and played Stu Erwin on The Stu Erwin Show and Otto King on The Greatest Show on Earth) plays bakery co-owner Mr. Henslee. Hanna Landy (starred in Thunder Pass, Git!, In Like Flint, and Rosemary's Baby) plays his wife.
Season 6, Episode 27, "Love and Learn": Diana Millay (shown on the right, played Laura Collins on Dark Shadows) plays Bud's tutor Nelda Fremont.
Season 6, Episode 28, "Blind Date": Hampton Fancher (Deputy Lon Gillis on Black Saddle and co-wrote the screenplay and was executive producer on Blade Runner) plays clumsy waiter Rudy Kissler. Dick Gering (Johnny Green on Margie) plays dance M.C. Bob.
Season 6, Episode 29, "Betty's Career Problem": Jim Hutton (shown on the left, starred in The Subterraneans, Where the Boys Are, The Honeymoon Machine, Bachelor in Paradise, Walk Don't Run, and The Green Berets and played Ellery Queen on Ellery Queen) plays Betty's nemesis Cliff Bowman.
Season 6, Episode 30, "Bud Lives It Up": Skip Young (Wally Dipple on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) plays Bud's debate teammate George Allison.
Season 6, Episode 31, "Not His Type": Diana Millay (see "Love and Learn" above) plays Betty's best friend Diane.
Season 6, Episode 32, "Betty's Graduation": Paul Brinegar (shown on the left, played Jim "Dog" Kelly on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Wishbone on Rawhide, Jelly Hoskins on Lancer, and Lamar Pettybone on Matt Houston) plays an unnamed delivery man.