The Original Cast of Father Knows Best on Radio
From left to right: Norma Jean Nilsson (Kathy), Ted Donaldson (Bud), Robert Young (Jim), Rhoda Williams (Betty), and June Whitley [Taylor] (Margaret).

Father Knows Best
A Bit of History

Before Father Knows Best (FKB) was a television program, it was a radio show. On both radio and TV, Jim Anderson—father—was portrayed by Robert Young, who later would become TV’s Marcus Welby, MD from 1969-1976. On radio, Father Knows Best aired from 1949-1954, and on television from 1954-1960.

The Andersons of television’s Father Knows Best
Clockwise from bottom left: Lauren Chapin (Kathy), Elinor Donahue (Betty), Robert Young (Jim), Jane Wyatt (Margaret), and Billy Gray (Bud)

When the television show ceased production, it was “at the peak of its popularity.” According to the Neilson ratings,

  • for the 1957-1958 season it was #25,
  • for the 1958-1959 season, # 14, and
  • for the 1959-1960 and its final season, #6.

The atmosphere of the television program was somewhat different than that of the radio show. One might not be far off to say that the radio program was primarily comedy and the television series lighthearted drama. Even so, the radio program had its share of warm and even tender moments. This Christmas show from Christmas Eve in 1953 is a wonderful example.

Jim Anderson and His Family on Radio

John Crosby, writing in the November 23rd, 1949 edition of the Oakland Tribune, reviewed the radio show. His review presents a perspective that is both fascinating and humorous, especially in light of the period.

“Father Knows Best,” a comparative newcomer (9:00 p.m. PST Thursday on KNBC), is one of those radio programs that set out to prove a thesis directly opposite to that of its title. Mother knows best, as any red-blooded American is fully aware. At least mother buys the coffee which sponsors this program so she better be portrayed that way.

“The average father,” explains Ed James, who [created and] writes the show, “thinks he is the head of the house. Actually, of course, his wife is.  Everybody knows this—and even father will acknowledge it under pressure.”

Though hobbled by this lamentable theory, “Father Knows Best” is a pretty fair show.  Robert Young who plays father is a far more expert comedian than I had realized.  He is required by James to put his foot in his mouth at least once in every script, and he does so with as much poise as possible under the circumstances.

Broadcast historian Elizabeth McLeod writes of the radio series,

Father Knows Best premiered over NBC in August of 1949, and while not a smash hit, it received warm reviews from the critics. Billboard magazine praised the show as a “happy combination of good scripting, sharp acting, and a satisfactory, if not sparkling, new premise.” The magazine took special note of the characterization of the father…, “whose ability to overcome the manifold domestic problems is supposedly self-evident. The program details some of his successes, but also takes note of those dismal failures which jolt him out of the near-glibness he approaches at times.” In Jim Anderson, [creator] Ed James created a father figure who was far from a caricature, either as a blundering clod or as an omniscient patriarch. Like the real-life dads listening at home, he tried his best, did what he thought was best—and hoped for the best results. And, like most everyday dads, when things didn’t go right his tongue could turn sharp. While not a perfect father, he was at least a realistic one, something radio had rarely seen.1

Jim Anderson and His Family on Television

The website fatherknowsbest.us carries an account of the history of the television program. Here is the first paragraph of that account.

Ironically, Father Knows Best is loved by its fans and disliked by its critics for the same reason: its ideal of the “typical American family”. After World War II, Americans had a bright future ahead, and optimism abounded. Father Knows Best reflects this mood, and was an “improvement” on reality, the way TV shows and movies used to be. The program was like a Norman Rockwell painting- filled with cheery lovable characters and a non-threatening humor that was middle America’s idea of itself. It was an air-brushed, touched-up portrait of family life that people could aim for. It spoke to the sunny ideal of how we could live our own lives. Every episode had a message, something to say that would touch the television audience. In outright defiance of the 1950’s sitcom formula of “zany wives, blustering chowder-head husbands and sassy children one step away from juvenile delinquency”, Father Knows Best portrayed a family that was surprising similar to real people. The parents managed to ride through almost any family situation without violent injury to their dignity, and the three Anderson youngsters were presented as decently behaved children who respected and loved their parents. A newspaper critic at the time wrote that “Jim Anderson may be the first intelligent father permitted on TV since they invented the thing”.

At artofmanliness.com, an article about TV dads says Jim Anderson was successful at his job and a great dad at home. In each episode, the children learned a moral lesson of some kind from their father. While its true Father Knows Best was a bit “campy” and offered somewhat unrealistic portrayal of family life, “Jim Anderson is definitely a refreshing portrayal of an American dad when all you see these days are a bunch of dopey fathers on TV.”

Like any flawed human, Jim Anderson may not always have known best in the absolute sense, but he undeniably was a loving father, even though at times with a rough exterior and with obvious imperfections.


Like any flawed human, Jim Anderson may not always have known best in the absolute sense, but he was undeniably a loving father, even though at times with a rough exterior and with obvious imperfections.


While the television series is more familiar to Americans today, the radio version of Father Knows Best is well worth listening to and enjoying. Actually, they both need to be rediscovered and appreciated anew.

You can listen to and download more than 80 Father Knows Best radio shows from this page.


Interesting fact: June Whitley was not the only actress to portray Margaret Anderson on the radio. A good many episodes of Father Knows Best, including the Christmas episode embedded above, featured Jean Vander Pyl as Margaret Anderson. Vander Pyl also supplied the voice of Wilma Flintstone on The Flintstones. Hear her perform both in these short clips.

 

Wilma Flintstone in the episode in which Pebbles arrives

 

Margaret Anderson in “Betty’s Freedom,” Father Knows Best on February 18, 1954


This page is part of a larger article. Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Note:

1Elizabeth McLeod, “Father Knows Best Program Guide,” an insert in an album of 16 Father Knows Best radio programs on CD released by Radio Spirits, (Little Falls, NJ, 2011), 5.