Becoming a grandparent is a remarkable experience that many people report as rejuvenating, bringing fresh purpose to people who have otherwise achieved their life goals and settled into a quieter time (Lesley Stahl recently published a whole book studying the phenomenon of grandparenting, researching its role throughout history and in the modern day, and it’s fascinating). While plenty of books have grandparents in them, most treat our parents’ parents as charming old folks who rarely have much to do with the plot. These five grandfathers, on the other hand, aren’t content to sit back and let the world pass them by—they are the plot.
The Grandfather in The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Okay, he’s not actually in the book. But William Goldman wrote the screenplay adaptation, so we’ll accept him as canon, and he’s wonderful. As portrayed by Peter Falk, the curmudgeonly grandfather knows how to handle his young grandson expertly at bedtime, and proceeds to reel off what is likely the greatest bedtime story ever told. Falk’s grandfather remains a bit of a mystery to us, as very little is revealed about him aside from his obvious affection for his grandson and his kind of prickly demeanor, but you still feel like you know him, and very likely fervently want to have lunch with him just to listen to him tell a great story from Back in the Day and then probably give you some hard candy he’s got in the pockets of his sweater.
Vito Corleone in The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
Murderous, manipulative cancer on society? Sure, but Vito Corleone built a world-class criminal empire all in the service of providing for and securing his family. Having seen the damage done through vendettas in Sicily and then being forced to find his way through an unfamiliar society in America, Vito ruthlessly pursues power not as an aim in itself, but as a way to guarantee that his family is protected and inherits that power so they will never have to worry again. Unlike the grandfather in The Princess Bride, you might not want to have Vito creep into your room at night to read you a story, but he might not be a bad choice as grandfather if you’re, say, being bullied at school.
Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
Agent of chaos, instigator, and genius slacker, Grandpa Joe has actually garnered quite a cult of Internet Hate in the modern age, as an old man who claims to be bedridden but can leap up and dance when a free tour of a chocolate factory is announced, as well as a leech who contributes nothing to an impoverished household but still secrets away “tobacco money.” Whether or not these actions make Joe a monster or a genius depends on your own attitude towards things like getting out of bed ever or holding a job ever, but it’s obvious innocent Charlie Bucket loves his grandpa and wouldn’t take anyone else on the factory tour. And since Charlie is proved to be worthy of inheriting the factory at the end because of his essential goodness and intelligence, you have to take his recommendation of his lazy, seemingly selfish grandfather at face value. Plus, Grandpa Joe is fun, demonstrating you’re never too old (or too covered in bedsores) to sing, dance, and eat candy until you pass out.
Robert Jebediah “Granddad” Freeman in The Boondocks, by Aaron McGruder
Granddad Freeman is a fantastic character. Grumpy, selfish, and constantly irritated, he has also lived a rich life filled with history, bravery, and adventure—even if there’s some question as to whether his stories of World War II heroism, involvement in the civil rights movement, and other adventures are completely truthful. While usually outraged by whatever his two grandsons get up to, Granddad obviously has grudging affection for them. He’s not perfect, and his reliance on corporal punishment is out of step with the modern world (as is Grandad himself) but any grandfather who has lived half the life Robert has would be an incredible man to have around the house.
The Alm-Uncle in Heidi, by Johanna Spyri
The classic tale of the World’s Most Cheerful Orphan is, in some ways, a redemption story for Heidi’s curt, taciturn, and embittered grandfather, The Alm-Uncle (a.k.a. Uncle Alp). At the beginning of the story he’s a man who has turned away from the world and from God, and initially it seems that his angry, unhappy little world will be a terrible place for Heidi to live. But her innocent, happy approach to a life that has pretty much been all lemons all the time soon moves him to a grudging affection, and after Heidi’s adventures in the city she helps him overcome his grief and anger and return to society and the local church congregation, by which time it’s clear the Alm-Uncle is a loving, supportive grandparent we’d all be lucky to have.