5 Things These TV Dads Can Teach You About Acting

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Photo Source: “Stranger Things” Courtesy Netflix

While it may be fun eating enough to get that now surprisingly sexy dad bod, it takes more than a paunch and some bad jokes to play the part of a daddy (not to be confused with a zaddy) well. Here are five actors whose choices both on- and off-screen can help you succeed.


Know your strengths

Michael Landon on “Little House on the Prairie”

As prairie dweller Charles Ingalls, Landon played loving, funny, and stern when the script called for it—with a tear or two in what felt like every episode. All of these traits were evident in most of Landon’s roles, including Little Joe Cartwright on the long-running “Bonanza” and the angel Jonathan Smith on “Highway to Heaven.”

Diversity in roles, no doubt, is a necessary ingredient for an actor’s résumé. But also recognizing what works for you as a performer is pivotal. For an actor like Landon, it was a flawless fit and a lesson for anyone looking to find their niche. When you can tap into your strengths, capitalize on them.


It’s OK to return to a role

John Goodman as Dan Conner on “Roseanne” and “The Conners”

Look at Goodman’s IMDb profile and you will find a considerable 174 acting credits. But perhaps his greatest success was playing patriarch Dan Conner on the sitcom “Roseanne” and its later incarnation, “The Conners.”

For some actors, returning to a long-running role can seem like a letdown. But for Goodman, revisiting his character further endeared him to audiences old and new: Dan was still the man.

The lesson? Going back to a character you’ve already played isn’t a sign of weakness. If they want you back, that not only means you were doing a great job, but it also proves that the creators have faith in your longevity. In a profession where self-doubt can be crushing, knowing that people want you to stick around is priceless.

Explore the unexpected side of your character

Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing on “Dallas”

Oil magnate John Ross (J.R.) Ewing Jr. was one of the greatest villains in television history and certainly not a man anyone should ever marry. (Inquiry for Sue Ellen: Why did you say “I do” a second time?) 

But when J.R. realized that he, not arch enemy Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) was the biological father of his son John Ross, we witnessed a rare glimpse of a kinder and gentler man who learned to love his son. That newly discovered trait made J.R. an even more compelling character.

For any actor, sticking with a character and being open to the different nuances that come along with a role is a trip worth taking. A TV bad guy isn’t always bad, and it’s powerful—and a good exercise—for you to show that.

Don’t be afraid to branch out

David Harbour as Jim Hopper on “Stranger Things”

Initially, Harbour—who was used to performing Shakespeare, acting on Broadway (“The Rainmaker”), and taking roles in serious films (“Revolutionary Road,” “Brokeback Mountain”)—was apprehensive about portraying Hopper. But he cited Oscar winner George Clooney as an example of an actor diversifying his filmography after being on a TV series.

“I think about George Clooney leaving ‘ER.’ Now we just see him as George Clooney. But there was a time when it was, ‘The guy from “ER” is doing a movie with Nicole Kidman,’” he told Deadline.

But thanks to a role that beautifully showcased his talents, “the guy from ‘Stranger Things’” became unforgettable. Hopper, Hawkins’ alcoholic-turned-action-hero police chief, could have been a one-note characterization opposite a plethora of potentially scene-stealing kids, but it turned out to be a platform for Harbour to display myriad emotions and stretch himself as an actor.

Changing it up can be scary if you’re used to acting in a particular medium. But you never know what a role can do for you and your career. There can be huge benefits to taking that leap.

Stand tall even if you are the second banana

Reginald VelJohnson as Carl Winslow on “Family Matters”

At its inception, the sitcom “Family Matters” focused on the Winslows, a middle-class African-American family living in Chicago and headed by Carl Winslow (VelJohnson) and his wife Harriet (JoMarie Payton). Flash-forward to when what was supposed to be a one-episode, first-season guest shot for Jaleel White as nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel. Urkel did indeed “do that”: He basically took over the show.

There was some grumbling among cast members, and Payton decided to exit the series in the final season. But VelJohnson was a trouper, remaining the Winslow family head until the end of the series, while also working on other projects during “Family Matters” hiatuses (including the movies “Turner & Hooch” and “Die Hard 2”).

Although VelJohnson’s character morphed into the second-banana spot, that spot was on a now-iconic, nine-season TV series, offering the stability (and salary) that can be a rarity for any actor. It pays to be humble—the next big role just might be yours.

Marc Berman
Veteran journalist Marc Berman is the editor of the Programming Insider. He’s written for the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, NBC.com, and Emmy magazine, among other publications.
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