Saying Goodbye to Joe Flaherty, Television’s Greatest Dad

The SCTV veteran passed away this week at 82. At the turn of the millennium, his performance on Freaks and Geeks became the show’s hopeful, loving soul—as he portrayed the mundane imperfections of fatherhood with grace, humor and patience.

TV Features Freaks and Geeks
Saying Goodbye to Joe Flaherty, Television’s Greatest Dad

This week, news broke that Joe Flaherty, the SCTV vet and iconic “that guy” in movies, passed away at the age of 82 after battling a short illness. The Pittsburgh-born comedy hero and impressionist hadn’t amassed an acting credit since 2012, when he had a one-episode appearance in a show called Call Me Fitz—and it had been since 2004’s Phil the Alien that Flaherty scored a film role. But of course you remember him and his work. He was a nuisance border guard in Stripes, the Western Union guy in Back to the Future Part II and, of course, Donald—aka the “jackass” heckler—in Happy Gilmore. At the turn of the millennium, Flaherty caught small (or uncredited) roles in Detroit Rock City, Freddy Got Fingered and Slackers. In a 40-year career, he became the epitome of an on-screen heat-check; when he entered a scene, there was no doubt that he was going to deliver a dozen buckets in limited minutes.

I first met Flaherty when I was seven or eight, after my parents bestowed upon me the Mitchell birthright of adoring and obsessing over Freaks and Geeks—the doomed, one-season period drama about eight teenagers growing up in the suburbs near Detroit during the 1980-81 school year. Flaherty played Harold Weir, the good-hearted, snarky patriarch of the show and father of Sam (John Francis Daly) and Lindsay (Linda Cardellini). From the moment the cold open of Episode 2 enters with Flaherty standing over the sink in his oversized white boxers, it’s immediately clear that you’re going to get along with his character. And that much becomes true soon after that underwear reveal, as Harold berates his children at the breakfast table about the Sex Pistols and their alleged acts of spitting on concertgoers. “Dad, every generation is scared of the music that comes from the next,” Lindsay says. “I’m sure your parents hated Elvis.” “Elvis didn’t expectorate on his fans,” Harold rebuttals. “No, but he died on the toilet,” Sam replies. “Well, that’s paradise compared to where those Sex Pistols are gonna end up,” Harold concludes before the opening credits cut in with Joan Jett singing “Bad Reputation.”

Freaks and Geeks was a show about many things—rock ‘n’ roll, navigating teenage romance, smoking pot, grappling with grief and dread, Led Zeppelin worship, throwing parties, going to laser shows, the death of disco, hitchhiking—but one unavoidable trend throughout the 18 episodes is that, for the most part, the fathers in the show are bad guys. Nick’s (Jason Segel) dad is an emotionally-distant, borderline abusive military veteran; Neil’s (Samm Levine) dad cheats religiously on his wife; Bill’s (Martin Starr) dad is a deadbeat who abandoned him and his mom years before the show takes place; Kim’s (Busy Philipps) dad isn’t around, but her stepdad is a malignant, moronic drunk. We don’t see Daniel (James Franco) or Ken’s (Seth Rogen) dads, but we know that Daniel’s pops is ill in some way and that Ken’s owns a company—so they’re immune from criticism. Harold Weir wasn’t as sentimental a character as Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) or as annoyingly macho and jaded as Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) or as one-note as Red Forman (Kurtwood Smith) or as lampoonish as Tim Taylor (Tim Allen). He was canonically a good person, the embodiment of an ideal Midwestern parent of the era: faithful, fiscally conservative, cynical, dull and, above anything else, supportive of his children—and Flaherty was the only man on the planet who could’ve played him.

Flaherty’s on-screen marriage to Becky Ann Baker’s Jean Weir, too, was the glue of Freaks and Geeks; the solid-as-a-rock foundation of normalcy at the center of nearly every storyline. There’s an episode where they fight over how boring and cyclical their days are, which leads to Jean cooking Cornish Game Hen (“What’d you do, put poison in a bird feeder?” Harold quips) and her and Harold having some very intense afternoon sex before their kids even get home from school. When Jean’s Halloween cookies are discarded in their yard because mothers are fearing they might have razor blades in them (oh, the Reagan years…), Harold dutifully treks to the store in full vampire garb to get a bag of candy to salvage the night. Flaherty and Baker so effortlessly translated the timelessness of middle-age matrimony on-screen, often throwing absolute heaters around the dinner table or in front of the television set or in brief glimpses of pillow talk and kitchen banter. Like parents of that age in real life, much of their vibrancy exists within the walls of their archaically-decorated home. And, in a show that so perfectly cashed in on the charms of every teenage cast member, creator Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow also made sure we fell in love with the trite escapades of the Weir begetters.

I grew up in a stable household not more than a few hours south of where Freaks and Geeks took place. My parents never divorced, though there were definitely a few instances where they certainly could have after the recession hit (and I often still wonder if, five or 10 years ago, they should have). Almost all of my friends watched their parents split at some point or another, but I never opened myself up to whether or not I was lucky to always return to a somewhat-cohesive home life after school. My dad was nowhere near as dorky or as straight-laced as Harold Weir, but he and the fictional Michigander both remind me of how easy it is to forsake a love dressed up in strictness’ clothing. I think about all of the times I put my mom and dad through the ringer—all of the school suspensions and groundings—and how their responses always, in the moment, felt callous and over-the-top, and I see the ways that my teenage brain lacked nuance then. I couldn’t see the care that so often glowed beneath their discipline and, when you’re trying to make sense of your own personhood at school, in text group chats and on a burgeoning social media landscape, it’s easy to remember that you also have to be a son, a daughter, a child, etc. For a long time, I forgot, until Flaherty and Freaks and Geeks so often and so generously pulled me back down to Earth and suggested I take the time to remember.

Throughout the series, we get numerous flashes of comedic brilliance from Flaherty. In “The Diary,” as Harold and Jean are snooping through Lindsay’s bedroom for her journal, Flaherty delivers one of the best lines of the entire show, after positing that their daughter might become a sex worker if she keeps hanging out with Kim. Jean refutes such a ludicrous assumption, to which Harold says: “Everybody has parents, Jean—even hookers! Remember that TV movie we saw?” A few moments later, Flaherty calls a spherical case of sewing needles “birth control pills.” “Our little daughter with a… sewing kit,” he says, correcting himself. And earlier in that same episode, there’s a really terrific instance where, after Lindsay and Kim get caught hitchhiking, we get a real zoomed-in shot of Harold sticking his thumb up at his daughter, scolding her for doing her best Jack Kerouac impression. “This! The thumb! You think I don’t know what that means?” he barks. “I know, Lindsay. It means, ‘Hey stranger! Please lock me in your car, drive me to God knows where and murder me!’”

I can’t even confidently say that Flaherty’s sole responsibility in the show was to provide comic relief—though “spooning with a stranger in the backseat of a van, that’s a violation” and “these stamps… I heard the kids put LSD on the back of them” are some of the funniest one-liners I’ve ever heard. The real treasure of Freaks and Geeks is that everyone in that cast was (and is) funny. What Flaherty represented on the show was the very familiar truth that most middle-aged fathers are, at the end of the day, hilarious because they are so painfully mundane—and Flaherty reveled in that role. One of my favorite moments in the show comes in the penultimate episode, “The Little Things,” when he and Lindsay are arguing about politics and she reveals that she doesn’t want to ask Vice President George Bush a question because she’s a Democrat. “Everyone’s a Democrat until they get a little money,” says Harold, a noted local business owner and scrupulous suburbanite who never clears the dinner table. “Then they come to their senses.”

We find out that Harold lost his virginity during the Korean War in the Red Light District; he thinks Neal Peart’s drumming is terrible; to him, the “in and out and in and out” lyrics in the Who’s “Squeeze Box” are about sex and not playing an accordion; he thinks that the welfare rolls are full of video game players (“No they’re not,” Lindsay rebutted; “Well… they’re gonna be!” Harold retorts). He walks around in his underwear, complains to Jean that he has horrible gas right before bed, shrugs his shoulders when his wife suggests they have sex. Harold aches to spend time with his aging kids and attempts to do so by playing Pit, one of the most boring tabletop games in human history. He embarrasses his son around his crush but is quick to make amends by buying a full-page advertisement in the high school yearbook off of them as a peace-offering. Harold isn’t a complicated man whatsoever. For most of the show, we don’t know his backstory—well, except for the Korean War story (“It was the worst five dollars I’ve ever spent, and I wish I could get those five dollars back”)—and we don’t need to. His purpose was to be the ordinary, rock-steady parent.

That remains true until “Smooching and Mooching,” when Nick runs away from home to escape the expectations of his abrasive father (after he gives Nick’s drum kit away). Harold takes him in like he’s one of the family, going as far as showing him the genius of percussionist Gene Krupa and paying for Nick to take drumming lessons in his downtime after school. We see Lindsay grow frustrated with how well her father is treating her ex-boyfriend, to which he very touchingly explains that his own father mirrored the behaviors of Nick’s, and that she’ll never know what it’s truly like to grow up in an environment where love is substituted with abject disdain and pressure. It’s a massively tender moment that gnaws at the heart of Harold’s character—and Flaherty’s performance: He might be snide and capricious in his parenthood, but he holds the capacity to care for anyone. While the teen ensemble was never not the focus of the show, we watch Harold’s arc conclude in real-time, as he goes from being the robot who was afraid his penis would fall off if he ever had to help clean up after dinner to a selfless parental figure doting out affection and support to a kid he called a “grease bucket” just a handful of episodes earlier.

When you love a TV show as long as I have loved Freaks and Geeks, you find yourself appreciating different episodes for different reasons as you grow older. While in college, “The Little Things” was like scripture to me, as I had been recently diagnosed as intersex and used that episode as a reference for how to love myself with grace. Now that I’m inching closer and closer to 30—and as my relationship with my own father remains more distant than it was when he and my mom handed me the Freaks and Geeks DVD box set and directed to me to go forth and discover the splendors of growing up—I have grown to truly adore the 12th episode of the show. Titled “The Garage Door,” we watch Neil, Sam and Bill case the entire town in an effort to find Neil’s dad’s “love nest,” after Sam sees Mr. Schweiber being affectionate with a stranger at a department store and relays to his best friend that he fears there might be an affair going on.

The silent throughline of the episode is Neil getting an Atari console, along with Sam’s brief mention of wanting one himself (which leads to that incredible welfare roll back-and-forth bit between Flaherty and Cardellini). Of course, Neil gets his video game because his dad feels bad about the affair—but the episode ends, surprisingly, with Sam returning home after an arduous night spent biking from neighborhood to neighborhood to no avail and discovering that his parents bought him an Atari of his own because of how good a kid he is. “Maybe you can teach me about them Space Invaders, huh?” Harold says to his emotional son, who hugs him tighter than anyone has ever hugged anybody in the history of television (except for the hug in The Fresh Prince, you know the one).

I love “The Garage Door” now because, even amid whatever familial estrangements I have with whomever, I remember to be thankful that my dad is not just still around, but that he has always remained hopelessly devoted and committed to my mom. There’s a scene in “The Garage Door” where Sam asks Lindsay if she thinks their dad would ever cheat on their mom, to which Harold enters the scene half-naked and confused because he heard his name said. In that moment, the two kids laugh hysterically, and all of their momentous worries about their parents’ potential proclivity for extramarital affairs immediately goes out the window.

I didn’t know how lucky I was to have that kind of certainty 15 years ago, and maybe a part of me still doesn’t truly know because I’ve never lost it. But I don’t take for granted what it means to listen to my friends grieve the absences of their own fathers, as weddings approach and birthdays come and go. And I certainly would never squander how often Freaks and Geeks has reminded me why an imperfect parenthood is still, often, a parenthood regardless. Joe Flaherty captured that imperfectness with such dignity and such patience that, today, I’m pouring one out and booting up the gaming system just for him. As he famously says in the series finale: “Maybe we should take a picture of this moment.”

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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