We are in the midst of our “Men of August” series and today we to learn about another Wisconsin resident, Al Molinaro. Last week we delved into the career of Tom Bosley; Molinaro and Bosley were castmates on Happy Days but made their way there on very different paths.
Al’s parents immigrated from Italy. His father had a true success story. He began his life in America at age 15 working as a water boy with a railroad crew heading west. He met and married his wife in Kenosha, Wisconsin where they settled down to raise their family of ten children. Al was born in 1919.
Al’s father, Raffaele, owned a restaurant/hotel and sponsored hundreds of Italians so they could make their way to the United States. Al’s brother Joseph became the district attorney for Kenosha County, and his brother George served thirty years in the Wisconsin State Assembly.
After high school, Al became a union leader at the Vincent-McCall Furniture Spring Factory. A year later, he later took a position with the City of Kenosha as assistant to the city manager. A friend of his had relocated to California to work in the aircraft industry and encouraged Al to give it a try.
In 1940, Al left Wisconsin for a career in California. Although Al would never live in Kenosha again, it held a special place in his heart and later in his life, he said that “I love that town; I love it. If it wasn’t that I left it for show business, I’d still be there today.”
His first job in Los Angeles was with Reginald Denny’s Hobby Shop. He began working odd jobs in the television industry such as a live action animator at George Pal’s studios. He then worked for a bill collecting company until he had saved enough money to open his own collection agency. Although he moved on to another career, he held onto the collection agency until he retired. During this time, he also got involved in real estate. One of his properties was purchased for a huge retail mall which gave Molinaro the funds he needed to pursue an acting career.
During this time, he met his wife, Helen Martin, and they married in 1948, eventually divorcing in 1980.
Al began receiving television roles in 1969. He first appearance was on Green Acres. Lisa opens a box of cereal only to find real gemstones in her box of Crickly Wickly. It turns out jewel thieves hid their stolen goods in the box in a Chicago factory. You know this will be a fun episode right from the beginning when the credits show up graffitied on a wall behind the crooks. Al was one of those crooks, and he would show up in two other Green Acres episodes. He also appeared on Bewitched, Get Smart, That Girl, and Love American Style.
He took an improv class where he met Penny Marshall. In 1970, Penny introduced Al to her brother Garry which would change his acting journey. When The Odd Couple was casting for roles, Al wanted an audition for the role of Murray Greshler, the police officer who played poker with Oscar and Felix. Garry didn’t think he was right for the role, so he resisted, but Al was so persistent, he finally brought him in and ended up offering him the job.
After the show ended, Garry offered Al the role of Al Delvecchio, replacing Pat Morita who was leaving Happy Days as the owner of Arnold’s. Happy Days was set in Milwaukee, a city Al was very familiar with. While on the show, Molinaro suggested that Robin Williams be cast in a role John Byner declined which led to a new career for Williams.
In 1981, Al married Betty Farrell. About this same time, he was one of the cast members who made the transition from Happy Days to the show’s spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachi.
After portraying a restaurant owner on the air for many years, Al became one in real life when he and Anson Williams (Potsie on Happy Days) opened a chain of diners called Big Al’s.
Molinaro continued to receive acting offers from Garry for some of his movies, but he felt he had to turn them down. He couldn’t reconcile his role with the language in movies that he felt was offensive. As he said, “I can’t work in movies with Garry because I’m so square that I won’t be in a movie that has four-letter words in it. . . . You gotta live with yourself.”
Molinaro retired from acting in the early nineties but continued to appear in commercials for another decade. His commercial career included being the spokesperson for Cortaid Hydrocortisone Cream, Mr. Big Paper Products, and 42 spots for On-Cor Frozen Foods.
Al was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the mid-90s. He died from complications from an infected gallbladder in 2015.
Considering Al was only an actor for 22 years or so, he created several of our favorite characters. He seemed to have a full life and stayed very humble. Happy Days would not be the same without Al, and he added a lot of humor to The Odd Couple’s weekly poker nights. A true success story; I’m glad he provided us with so many memorable moments without sacrificing his personal moral standards.