For those of us who watched the cult hit Gilmore Girls during its original run on the WB and CW networks—as well as for those who’ve discovered the show anew since its arrival on Netflix—the battles are fierce and ongoing. I mean, of course, the battles over which Gilmore guys are the best. The “girls” of the title, single mom Lorelai and her daughter, Rory—played respectively by Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel—each had a succession of boyfriends, male “just friends,” and the occasional husband, most of whom had an extremely polarizing effect on fans. To this day, you can be talking with viewers of the show and say something critical of Jess, Rory’s second boyfriend, and it’ll be like you kicked over a giant anthill. (I know; I’ve done it.)

While romantic relationships fizzled or flamed out or roared back to life, Richard was a steady presence, the kind of grandfatherly figure that plays a unique and irreplaceable role in a person’s life. But all the bickering over Dean vs. Jess vs. Logan vs. Marty and Luke vs. Chris vs. Max vs. Jason tends to obscure an interesting fact about the show. The love interests weren’t always the best male characters on it—not least because the writers developed a bad habit of altering them midway through their arc to fit the needs of the plot. Ironically, the men who got to stay in the background and didn’t come in for that kind of tinkering fared better. Chief among these was Lorelai’s father, Richard.

When actor Edward Herrmann, who played this role for seven seasons, died at the end of December 2014, he was remembered by many people for his many roles on film, stage, and TV. But for much of my own generation, he was largely remembered, and mourned, as Richard Gilmore. As Kevin O’Keeffe wrote in The Atlantic, “Of course, to boil a man’s life and career into one role is impossible. Herrmann’s filmography is filled with gems, all of which should and will make their way onto viewing queues in the coming days. I know I’ll find time to rewatch Overboard soon. But for me and I’m sure for others, this doesn’t feel like the loss of just one man, but two.”

Maybe this man made such an impression simply because he’s the man who was always there. While romantic relationships fizzled or flamed out or roared back to life, Richard was a steady presence, the kind of grandfatherly figure that plays a unique and irreplaceable role in a person’s life. Anyone who’s been blessed with a good grandfather (I was blessed with two of them, myself) will know what I’m talking about. He’s not always physically present, but nonetheless he’s always with you, woven into your life, an unfailing source of love, support, and strength.

For teenage Rory Gilmore, with a charming but hapless father who drifted in and out of her life, that presence proved to be especially important. The show began when Lorelai was forced to borrow money from her wealthy and estranged parents for Rory to attend a prestigious prep school, a transaction that brought those parents back into the Gilmore girls’ lives on a regular basis. Consequently, much of the early part of the show focused on Rory getting to know her grandparents, Richard and Emily (Emily Bishop), whom she had previously seen only on holidays.

After an awkward beginning over the quintessential grandfatherly pastime of golf, Rory and Richard discovered they had some things in common—primarily their shared love for travel, reading, and education—and suddenly they were bonding at a rate that startled and even alarmed Rory’s mother.

For with Lorelai and Richard, things were more complicated. The seeds of possible closeness were there—many of their scenes together were simultaneously awkward, touching, and sweet—but their growth was always, sadly, getting thwarted somehow. The relationship was summed up eloquently in a first-season conversation between Lorelai and her good friend Luke (Scott Patterson) after Richard has suddenly been taken ill:

LORELAI: I feel like this is one of those moments when I should be remembering all the great times I had with my dad, you know—the time he took me shopping for a Barbie, or to the circus, or fishing—and my mind is a complete blank.

LUKE: Well, I’m sure it happened.

LORELAI: No, it didn’t. We never did any of that. He went to work, he came home, he read the paper, he went to bed, I snuck out the window. Simple. He was a very by-the-numbers guy. I was never very good with numbers.

LUKE: I’m sure he loves you.

LORELAI: You know, my dad is not a bad guy.

LUKE: I’m sure he’s not.

LORELAI: He lived his life the way he thought he was supposed to. He followed the rules taught to him by his non-fishing, non-Barbie-buying dad. He worked hard. He bought a nice house. He provided for my mom. All he asked in return was for his daughter to wear white dresses and go to cotillion and want the same life that he had. What a disappointment it must have been for him to get me.

The troubled father-daughter relationship Lorelai describes was poignantly played by Herrmann and Graham, as the two characters alternately brought out the best and the worst in each other. As kind and supportive as Richard could be, he wasn’t perfect. He could be something of a snob, and his business practices could be ruthless. He had a need to control people and situations that frequently clashed with his daughter’s fierce need for independence. “Did you call my father The Puppetmaster?” she admonished Rory during a conversation about him. “Always call him The Puppetmaster.”

On the other hand, Rory, who had always known a freer and more flexible lifestyle, gravitated toward her grandfather’s stability, often leaving Lorelai on the outside looking in. But in doing so, she started to open her mother’s eyes to sides of Richard that she hadn’t seen—or hadn’t wanted to see—before. Because Lorelai, feisty and funny and openhearted though she was, wasn’t perfect either. Her stubbornness tripped up her relationship with her father just as often as Richard’s pride did.

And Lorelai had a habit of sabotaging her relationships that led to two broken engagements, an impulsive marriage that quickly crashed and burned, and other assorted heartaches. If the sometimes soap opera–esque nature of the show’s romances was one of its major weaknesses, though, I believe Richard and Emily—particularly Richard—provided the counterweight that kept it from running completely off the rails.

Reading about Edward Herrmann after his death, I think I may have picked up a clue as to how he managed to fill that role on the show so well. Herrmann, who converted to Catholicism later in life, had once embraced a lifestyle that wasn’t so different from Lorelai Gilmore’s frenetic one. And he had learned a few things from it.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, when sex was free and there was no disease, we thought it was great,” he said in an interview. “We could sleep with anyone, and we did. It’s a lie. The fact that we did it didn’t make it true. It’s not enlightening and helpful. We didn’t look for connections, for relationships.”

He then added, “It was a bogus rainbow hair life,” which sounded exactly like something Richard Gilmore would say.

Richard may have been befuddled and sometimes even angered by a daughter he found incomprehensible, but at the end of the day he would still, in his own way, be on her side.Herrmann’s understanding of the need for real connections seems to have informed his work on Gilmore Girls. As frustrating as her relationship with her father could be, Lorelai couldn’t put him out of her life as she could with a love interest. That relationship was always there, needing work, patience, and effort . . . and when she failed to put those things into it, it was still there. As played subtly and beautifully by Herrmann, Richard may have been befuddled and sometimes even angered by a daughter he found incomprehensible, but at the end of the day he would still, in his own way, be on her side.

Ironically, it was Luke, Lorelai’s love interest, who eventually outlasted all the rest (though he survived his own share of breakups, heartaches, and sabotage) who probably had the most in common with Richard. I say “ironically” because Luke, a diner owner who favored flannel shirts and backward baseball caps, inevitably brought out Richard’s snobbish side. But Luke was there in that first season episode to help remind Lorelai that just because her father didn’t match her ideal, that was no reason to overlook his good qualities:

LORELAI: I bet you’d buy a Barbie for your daughter.

LUKE: Yeah, well, I’d probably give her the cash to buy it herself and meet her by the baseball cards.

The best men in our lives may not be the ones who conform to our specifications and fulfill our wildest dreams. They may be the ones like Richard Gilmore, who shows up even after a family fight to help his daughter with her insurance problems; or who dreams of his daughter going to Yale, but manages to be proud when she graduates from a business course at community college; or who does the wrong thing in the wrong way to try to help his granddaughter out of a jam, but does it because he can’t bear to see her cry. As Edward Herrmann demonstrated for us in this memorable role, the best man, on TV shows and in life, may be the one who just keeps being there for his loved ones, no matter what.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


4 Comments

  1. Loved this. I never thought about the idea of Lorelai’s father providing a counterweight to her troubled relationships with men — only as another troubled relationship with a man. A great tribute to the character of a strong, steady, if imperfect father. As I’m re-watching the show, I’m going to see it with a greater appreciation for Hermann’s role now…

  2. I’m really surprised by this take on Richard Gilmore. He wasn’t there for Rory so much as for himself and Emily. He was a know-it-all stuffed shirt who didn’t listen, and only caved in when beaten. Rather like a bull-in-a-tuxedo in a china shop who just knew the way he wanted to “rearrange” the china was the only reasonable way. I’m so glad I didn’t have a grandfather like him!

  3. i loved this. Richard the snobbish upper class businessman, the sometimes exasperated/ing but faithful husband, proud grandfather, and perplexed, sometimes disappointed/ing, and ultimately loyal father.

    Side note… Team Jess.

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