Tribute: Alan Thicke, Paragon of '80s TV Fatherhood and Canadian Identity

Alan Thicke Getty H 2016
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In college, back in the late '90s, we used to have a running joke that one of our friend's fathers was Alan Thicke

Thicke was, of course, not his father and I'm still waiting on somebody to tell me the origin of the joke, which probably had some connection to a shared love of hockey. But the exact reason hardly matters, because if you were a child who grew up watching a certain kind of sitcom in the '80s, Thicke was a paragon of a certain kind of TV patriarchy. In the multicam comedy of many of our lives, Alan Thicke was indeed our father.

The actor, who died on Tuesday at the age of 69, was interesting because he came to be a paragon in an assortment of arenas, a representative figure who may not have invented any paradigms and yet became almost an acting synecdoche. Thicke often was the part who represented the whole of TV sitcom fatherhood. He was the part who represented the whole of being Canadian. Even if he hadn't been a talk show host for years, Thicke was more talk show host than any actual talk show host, more game show host than most other game show hosts. And check out how many of Thicke's later screen appearances were as "Himself." Alan Thicke was more Alan Thicke than probably Alan Thicke ever was.

As a screen presence, Thicke wasn't necessarily subtle, but he was the distilled essence of many things.

Thanks to the popularity of CBS multicam comedies, we've cycled back to the archetype of sitcom dads who are overgrown man-children with hectoring wives and kids badly in need of better parenting. 

That was not the kind of father that Thicke's Jason Seaver was on Growing Pains. He was a psychiatrist practicing at home when his wife returned to work (like Kevin Can Wait, only fairly decent). And he was a good father, like Cliff Huxtable was a good father, like Steven Keaton was a good father. Jason Seaver cared and was sensitive and had wisdom to dispense, not that it necessarily helped make son Mike less of a brainless himbo or daughter Carol less of a socially challenged nerd. He still embraced them as the best versions of themselves. (I don't remember much about Jason Seaver's parenting of Ben or Chrissy, and then, around the time I stopped watching, the Seavers seemed to feel they were doing such a great job with parenting that they could bring in a homeless teen played by Leonardo DiCaprio.)

Thicke's background in talk shows and game shows gave Jason Seaver's pearls of wisdom a note of authority, but as one of the writers and producers on Fernwood 2 Night, he had ample comedy training and impeccable timing.

Long after Growing Pains ended (and was followed by a couple of TV movies), Thicke's biggest acting credits came when you needed to stunt a sitcom character's father, because when Alan Thicke came onscreen, that saved at least half of the writing you might otherwise do. Having Thicke as a TV parent allowed a form of instant audience recognition. 

In more recent years, writers have relished taking that meta touch one step more meta. In the pilot for NBC's This Is Us, Thicke played himself when the show-within-a-show, a hacky sitcom called The Manny, needed to cast the main character's father. The Manny was exactly the kind of show that would be overjoyed to stunt-cast an Alan Thicke, and that was basically all audiences needed to know about both The Manny and the state of Kevin Pearson's (Justin Hartley) career.

Thicke (or the This Is Us version of him) was also gracious and professional, exactly the way we'd expect Thicke (the real person and actor) to be. On The WB's much-too-short-lived The L.A. Complex, he played the ultra--conservative patriarch and creator of a show called Saving Grace and while he wasn't playing himself — Donald Gallagher was much less warm and cuddly — his inherent Alan Thicke-ness added authority to the show-within-a-show, made it believable. 

Thicke's presence also underlined how very Canadian The L.A. Complex was, albeit not nearly as Canadian as Thicke's multiple appearances as himself on How I Met Your Mother, where he became the ultimate signifier of Canadian identity. There was no purer way of vouching for and confirming Robin Scherbatsky's Canadian celebrity than connecting it to Alan Thicke. "Hockey Fanatic" and "Friend of Wayne Gretzky" (and "Father of Robin Thicke") were his highest-profile public roles. The even-keel openness that characterized Jason Seaver's parenting greatness was perhaps inextricably linked to Thicke's Canadian identity.

Being a paragon of fatherhood and Canadian pride explains at least in part why Thicke was so beloved, but it's also reductive. 

Like I said, Thicke knew how to hit a punchline, and he improved every show he starred on or guested on. He was a great game show host, and one of his early stints as a talk show host, The Alan Thicke Show, was very popular in Canada (late-night talk show Thicke of the Night was not as successful in the U.S.). Thicke also composed the classic theme songs for Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, plus at least one theme for Wheel of Fortune

There were many reasons to embrace and love Alan Thicke, and now to remember him.