Dads on TV come in all shapes, sizes, and parenting styles — just like dads in real life. Growing up, we tuned in to fathers as wildly diverse as Fred Sanford, Charles Ingalls, Tom Bradford, George Jefferson, and Howard Cunningham. Later came Homer Simpson, Philip Banks, and Tim Taylor. We’ve loved hero dads like Supernatural’s John Winchester, antihero dads like Tony Soprano, and surrogate dads like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Rupert Giles. A lot has changed since the era of Father Knows Best — these days, dads are allowed to be flawed and not know the answer — but one thing has stayed the same: We want them to be there for us.

So in honor of Father’s Day, here are 10 of my favorite TV dads … in no particular order because, in one way or another, they’re all special.

—Natalie Nichols

1. Keith Mars

Keith Mars

Father to: Veronica on Veronica Mars

Played by: Enrico Colantoni

Words of Wisdom: “…take Backup.”

It’s not easy having a sheriff-turned-private-eye for a father — especially when his investigation into your best friend’s murder makes you a high-school pariah in the haves-vs.-have-nots town of Neptune, California. On the other hand, Veronica’s pretty sought-after for a social outcast, thanks largely to the sleuthing skills she learned from Keith. Veronica’s mom took off after the case blew up, so it’s just Veronica and Keith (and their pit bull, Backup) against the world. Although Keith is a fun dad who likes to cook and keeps up a steady stream of snappy banter with his daughter, he’s also dead serious about protecting her: Once he even literally walked through fire to rescue her.

 

2. Jack Bristow

Jack Bristow

Father to: Sydney on Alias

Played by: Victor Garber

Words of Wisdom: “She’s better off not knowing everything.”

Jack and Sydney Bristow have one of the craziest father-daughter relationships ever, full of secrets and lies and insane plot twists. But from Jack’s point of view, lying is often necessary … to protect her. At first, this icy, brutally efficient CIA agent doesn’t tell his daughter that SD-6, the secret organization they both work for, is actually a global crime syndicate and not part of the CIA like she thinks. (But he has to lie, because he’s a double agent working to destroy SD-6.) He put Sydney through a secret training program that turned children into sleeper agents. (But only to make sure that her mom, a Russian spy, could never recruit her into the KGB.) And later, he killed her mother. (But only because she hired a hit man to kill Sydney … and anyway, it turned out the woman he killed wasn’t her. Told you it was crazy!) Truth wins out eventually, though, and Sydney helps Jack end SD-6. Pretty soon he’s trading terse banter with Sydney’s fellow-agent husband, Vaughn, and assisting at the birth of his granddaughter. But indulging his softer side hardly turns Jack into a weakling: When their ultimate enemy puts his endgame in motion, Jack makes the ultimate sacrifice to save Sydney — and the world.

 

3. Cliff Huxtable

Cliff Huxtable

Father to: Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy on The Cosby Show

Played by: Bill Cosby

Words of Wisdom: “I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out!”

When Ann B. Davis, aka Alice the housekeeper on The Brady Bunch, died recently, a friend of mine noted that she “raised all of us.” A generation later, the same could be said for The Cosby Show’s preternaturally wise, patient, and kind-hearted patriarch, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. He presided over domestic chaos with an endless arsenal of wisecracks, brooked no dumbass behavior, managed to be convincingly stern when he had to, and still found time to canoodle and engage in good-natured contests with loving wife Clair. As much as Cliff loved his kids, one of his fondest dreams was seeing them leave the house for good. Sometimes he got his wish, but unfortunately for him, the kids just kept on coming.

 

4. Walter Bishop

Walter Bishop

Father to: Peter Bishop on Fringe

Played by: John Noble

Words of Wisdom: “Science should be fun!”

A brilliant but mad scientist with arrogant tendencies and a taste for Red Vines and strawberry milkshakes, Walter didn’t just move heaven and Earth for his son — he actually moved across universes. And it wasn’t even to save his son Peter, who died of a boyhood illness. Walter crossed into a parallel universe to cure a different young Peter, the son of his doppelganger on “the Other Side.” But when Walter accidentally kept that Peter in his own world, it triggered a cosmic imbalance that began to slowly destroy the Other Side. Walter joins the FBI’s secret Fringe Division to try to fix that mistake, and heal the rift with the adult Peter … and, eventually, to reconcile with his seemingly diabolical other half. In the process, Walter becomes a surprisingly wonderful father figure to the whole Fringe team, including Peter’s love, Olivia. OK, a pot-smoking, LSD-dropping, cow-keeping father figure, but a kind and at times startlingly wise one, who in the end gives his all to protect his son’s future.

 

5. William Adama

William Adama

Father to: Lee and Zak Adama on Battlestar Galactica

Played by: Edward James Olmos

Words of Wisdom: “Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”

William “Bill” Adama is the kind of man who can make horrible choices and live with them. And as the war-hardened commander of the last remaining battlestar protecting a handful of human survivors from their rebellious creations the Cylons, he makes a lot of tough calls. Like not taking a suicidal last stand against the enemy, but escaping with his ragtag, mostly civilian fleet. Or forging an alliance with some human-sympathetic Cylons. Or executing mutineers who were once his friends. But one choice Adama could never make is to leave his fighter-pilot son Lee behind. Lee’s all Adama had left after younger son Zak, driven by his father’s expectations to become a fighter pilot, died during his first solo flight, a tragedy made possible because Zak only passed the test due to his romantic relationship with flight instructor Kara “Starbuck” Thrace. Zak’s death drove a wedge between Adama and Lee, but created a parental bond between Starbuck and Adama (who didn’t know what she’d done … till later). Two years after, Lee and Starbuck are among the few pilots left after the Cylon attack, and Adama becomes a father figure to 50,000 people. He knows the humans need more than mere survival, though; they need hope. So he makes up a story about knowing the location of Earth, the fabled thirteenth colony … and says he can take them there. But the journey deeply shakes Adama’s faith in himself, nearly putting him down for the count. He was right to keep his son by his side, because only Lee can pick him up.

 

6. Benjamin Sisko

Ben Sisko

Father to: Jake on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Played by: Avery Brooks

Words of Wisdom: “There comes a time in every man’s life when he must stop thinking and start doing.”

Though his ambitions as a Starfleet officer included nothing less than attaining the rank of admiral, Benjamin Sisko puts family first after wife Jennifer dies in a Borg attack. Instead of seeking another post on a starship, he takes his young son, Jake, to a safer gig at a Federation shipyard. A couple years later, Sisko accepts command of the space station Deep Space Nine but nearly quits Starfleet when he sees what a mess the station is, because it’s not an ideal place for Jake. Though Sisko is pretty good at juggling life on the busy station — a hub for traders and travelers, and a focal point of tensions between the Bajoran and Cardassian people — he struggles at times with his teenage son’s resentment and rebellion. Still, the two share a close bond, cemented by teasing humor and a love of good food. While Jake chooses not to join Starfleet, he grows into a thoughtful young man who inherits his father’s bravery, even making the ultimate sacrifice (in an alternate timeline) to save his dad. Though Sisko eventually ends up going where Jake can’t follow, he left with the knowledge that he raised his kid right.

 

7. Eddard “Ned” Stark

Ned Stark

Father to: Robb, Jon, Sansa, Bran, Arya, and Rickon on Game of Thrones

Played by: Sean Bean

Words of Wisdom: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

After he helped his boyhood pal Robert Baratheon seize the Iron Throne, Ned Stark returned to Winterfell, his sprawling castle in the remote territory of the North, to raise a family and live a quiet life far from the dangerous machinations of King’s Landing and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. He and wife Catelyn raised their children to become proper lords and ladies, instilling in their children the values of honor and responsibility he held dear. He’s even decent enough to make Theon Greyjoy, the son of a former enemy who becomes Ned’s hostage “ward” to ensure his father’s continued loyalty, feel like an actual member of the household. Yet noble Ned admitted wavering at least once, resulting in the bastard child Jon Snow, whom he insisted on raising alongside the other kids … much to Lady Stark’s dismay. Stern but loving, Ned had high expectations for his brood but often indulged their wishes, even when it went against his better judgment. Sadly, Ned’s honor was his downfall once King Robert summoned him to the capital, a place this heroic man was completely unequipped to deal with. Perhaps most tragically, however, Ned was so sure his children would never have to play the Game of Thrones that he didn’t spend much time schooling them in surviving it.

 

8. Noah Bennet

Noah Bennet

Father to: Claire and Lyle on Heroes

Played by: Jack Coleman

Words of Wisdom: “I’ve done some things I’m not proud of to keep you safe.”

He’s just a paper salesman — and an agent of the Company, a secret organization that keeps tabs on, imprisons, and sometimes kills people who have superhuman abilities. Noah is a true believer in the cause, who joins up after his pregnant wife is killed by a superhuman and quickly becomes one of the Company’s deadliest agents. But the deal is off when his employer demands he give up Claire, the daughter he adopted with his second wife, who has the power to heal from any injury. Noah will do anything to protect Claire — even lie to her about her biological parents, have his psychic partner erase her memories, or have his own memories of her removed. At times no one, not even Claire, sees his actions as reasonable, but that’s OK with Noah. Some might say his shifting loyalties and goals obscure his true intentions, but they really couldn’t be more clear: Keep his family out of harm’s way.

 

9. Artie Nielsen

Artie Nielsen

Father to: Claudia Donovan on Warehouse 13

Played by: Saul Rubinek

Words of Wisdom: “Why do you always listen to me when I don’t want you to?”

Cranky, secretive, and obsessive, Artie doesn’t seem like great dad material, but fatherhood is thrust upon him thanks to Claudia Donovan, a skilled teenage computer hacker who as a child witnessed older brother Joshua, her only family, disappear during a teleportation experiment that Artie tried to stop. Years later, she tracks Artie down at Warehouse 13 and kidnaps him, demanding that he help her bring Joshua back. After they succeed, Artie is basically forced to bring Claudia onto the Warehouse team to ensure the security of the vast secret facility where supernatural artifacts are stored. Her mad tech skills are a plus, but Claudia also enjoys bugging Artie and frequently disobeys his orders. Nevertheless, Artie finds himself compelled to act as a father figure … and not totally hating it, despite being incredibly uncomfortable with giving advice or accepting hugs.

 

10. Kaito Nakamura

Kaito Nakamura

Father to: Hiro and Kimiko on Heroes

Played by: George Takei

Words of Wisdom: “We have the power of gods. That does not mean we can play God.”

I know — two dads from Heroes? Well, Kaito Nakamura is a much different father than Noah Bennet, a stern, unforgiving, highly successful businessman who is deeply disappointed in his unambitious son, Hiro (but, paradoxically, initially reluctant to recognize the savvy business skills of daughter Kimiko). Kaito and Noah have some interesting connections. Kaito is one of the founders of the Company, and he arranged Claire’s adoption by Noah and Sandra. (He also has the special ability to accurately predict the outcome of a situation.) Kaito seizes the chance to redeem himself as a father, warming up to his son after Hiro’s space/time-traveling power manifests and the young man decides to become a hero. Kaito even tutors his son in sword fighting to help him prepare for a particularly scary showdown. When Kaito is killed by an old enemy, Hiro travels back in time to save him, but his father stops him from changing his fate, providing a perspective on the right and wrong way to wield power that serves his son well.

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