Any Time Spent with the Cunninghams Are Happy Days

Continuing the theme “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies,” we find ourselves transported to Milwaukee, WI in the 1950s getting to know the Cunninghams. Beginning September of 1984, Happy Days entertained fans for more than a decade, producing 255 episodes. When the show began, it was set in 1955, and when it went off the air eleven seasons later, it was 1965.

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Garry Marshall developed the pilot which first aired on Love American Style in 1972 as “Love and the Television Set.” The network wasn’t interested in turning the pilot into a show when it first came up. However, once George Lucas released American Graffiti in 1973, also starring Ron Howard, ABC took another look at the period show. The first two seasons, the show focused more on Richie Cunningham as he interacted with his friends and family. Jerry Paris (Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show) directed 237 of the episodes. Happy Days was described as relentlessly ordinary. The plots revolved around the same types of problems most teens experienced in the fifties: dating, wanting to be popular, peer pressure, and similar experiences.

Richie’s family includes his father Howard (Tom Bosley) who owns a hardware store, and his mother Marion (Marion Ross). Howard is a family man and is also loyal to his lodge. Marion is content to stay at home, except for a brief stint when she gets a job as a waitress at Arnold’s. The cast also includes his younger sister Joanie (Erin Moran) and an older brother Chuck.

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Chuck would not be around long. At the end of the series, Tom Bosley says “he had the joy of raising two wonderful kids and watching them and their friends grow up into wonderful adults.” Poor Chuck. His existence wasn’t even acknowledged in the finale. When a character just disappears without an explanation, it is often referred to as the “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.”

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Richie’s friends include Potsie Weber (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Donny Most). Potsie, whose real name is Warren, was a singer. When Richie went into the Army so did Ralph. A famous catchphrase from the show was Ralph’s uttering “I still got it!” after he told a joke. Richie’s girlfriend is Lori Beth Allen (Lynda Goodfriend). She and Richie marry later in the series. The friends hung out at Arnold’s and got to know Arnold (Pat Morita) well. They listen to a lot of music at the restaurant; Richie’s favorite song was “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. One fun fact about the drive-in was that the restrooms were labeled “Guys and Dolls.” Eventually, Arnold sells the restaurant to Al (Al Molinaro).

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The pilot included Ross, Howard, and Williams in their later roles. Harold Gould played the part of Howard and Susan Neher was Joanie. When the show got the go-ahead, Gould was involved in a play abroad and declined, so the role was given to Bosley.

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Robby Benson and Donny Most were both under consideration for the role of Richie. They had appeared in a commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups together. When Howard was given the role, the role of Ralph was created for Most.

There are several references during the show made about Ron Howard’s past acting roles. One of these occurred when the family is leaving a theater where they watched The Music Man in 1962. Marion comments that she thought the little boy in the movie looked just like Richie when he was little. Howard did in fact play the role of Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man in 1962 when he was eight years old.

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There were two primary sets for the show: The Cunningham residence and Arnold’s Drive-In. The real exterior of the house was in Los Angeles. However, Arnold’s found its inspiration in The Milky Way Drive-In located on Port Washington Road in Glendale, WI, more recently Kopp’s Frozen Custard.

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The ratings began to decline during the second season, so Garry Marshall made Fonzie (Henry Winkler) more involved in the show. Fonzie moved into the apartment above the Cunninghams’ garage. Eventually he and Richie become best friends, and Fonzie is a basically a member of the family. Marion is the only person who is allowed to call him Arthur. Fonzie was also fond of Joanie and nicknamed her “Shortcake.” His best-known catchphrase was “Heyyyy!” By 1976 the show was number one.

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In season four, Arnold sells his restaurant to Al (Al Molinaro). That same year, Fonzie’s cousin Chachi (Scott Baio) comes to town. He would eventually fall in love with Joanie. After season nine, Ron Howard left the show, and Howard’s nephew Roger (Ted McGinley) joins the cast as the new phy-ed teacher at the high school.

In season ten, Joanie and Chachi also leave the show; Moran and Baio starred in the spinoff Joanie Loves Chachi, but when the new show failed, both characters returned to Happy Days. Richie’s leaving was explained by him joining the Army. In season 11 he returns briefly to learn his parents have obtained an interview for him with the Milwaukee Journal. Not wanting to hurt their feelings, he eventually admits his wish is to go to California and try his hand at screenwriting.

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Some of the best-known guest stars include sports star Hank Aaron, singer Frankie Avalon, western star Lorne Greene, Brady kids Maureen McCormick and Christopher Knight, legends Tom Hanks and Danny Thomas, and blonde beauties Morgan Fairchild, Charlene Tilton, and Cheryl Ladd.

The show’s theme song was a new version of an old standard, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. The theme was so popular it reached #39 in 1974; in real life, in 1955, the song had been a number one hit.  Beginning in season three, a newer song, “Happy Days” was featured at the beginning of the show.

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Amazingly, the show would be the source for a variety of spinoffs including Laverne & Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi, Blansky’s Beauties, and Out of the Blue.

Once so many of the main characters began leaving the show, the writing was on the wall. “Jumping the shark” is an expression that was coined when The Fonz actually jumped a shark. It’s a symbol for when a show grasps at straws to increase the ratings. Rarely is that type of exaggeration successful and it was not for Happy Days.

The show was so popular it never left its Tuesday night line-up. It aired at 8 pm EST for the first ten seasons and switched to 8:30 for its final season. However, the show had lost its magic, and the cancellation was inevitable. In fact, the show probably should have ended a season earlier. In addition to actors wanting to move on to new projects, the sixties were a very different time period than the fifties. The warm and fuzzy family themes that carried the show through the fifties and early sixties could not continue as the series had to survive the hippy era and the Vietnam War.

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Although the show was a team effort, there is no denying that Winkler’s portrayal of the Fonz was the most popular character of the decade and one of the most iconic in television history. After the show was cancelled, his leather jacket was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution for the National Museum of American History. A bronze statue of the Fonz was erected in Milwaukee in 2008 along the Milwaukee Riverwalk.

This character warrants a closer look. One of the people who auditioned for the role of Fonzie was Micky Dolenz from The Monkees. He was a lot taller than the other cast members, so he was bypassed while they looked for a shorter actor which ended in Winkler’s hiring. Fonzie’s real name is Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli. His grandmother raised him and his nickname was Skippy. His hero is The Lone Ranger, and he carries a picture of him in his wallet.

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Winkler said he based some of Fonzie’s movements and speech after Sylvester Stallone whom he had worked with in The Lords of Flatbush. The Fonz loved motorcycles, but Winkler decidedly did not, so most scenes were shot with the bike attached to a platform which was pulled by a truck, so Winkler never had to ride it. The cycle was the same model Steve McQueen rode in The Great Escape in 1963.

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This show had a slew of catchphrases, and one of them came from The Fonz whenever he was trying to get someone to answer a question correctly.  When they said the right answer, his response was “correctamundo.”

Fonzie was adored by many kids, especially kids who needed some extra help or attention. Marshall was asked if the show could do something to help kids realize how important reading was. On one of the episodes, The Fonz went to the library and checked out a book, saying “Everybody is allowed to read.” That week, library card registrations increased by 500%. During one day of filming, a call came to Paramount Studios. It was from a teenage boy who was contemplating suicide. He wanted to talk to Fonzie. Winkler picked up the call and gave the boy hope, convincing him not to take his life.

The only negative thing about Fonzie was the result he had on Winkler’s future acting career.  It took a long time before he could shake that image and be considered for other types of acting roles.

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In 2019, the cast reunited to celebrate the life of Garry Marshall who passed away in 2016. In an article by Gina Vivinetto in Today on November 14, 2019, Donny Most discussed the cast. “We were so good at what we did because we respected each other and loved each other.” He went on to say “we made it look easy and it wasn’t.”

In another article during that same event written by Zach Seemayer November 17, 2019], Williams and Howard both talked about the mentoring they received from Marshall. Williams said, “He really cared about us. More than as actors. He really inspired us to learn because he said [we might] wanna wear many hats.” Howard also learned from his mentor, saying “Garry was a natural teacher and he loved collecting theories and axioms about life but also making a show. They were all hilarious but they all rang true and they were great lessons.”

Both Howard and Winkler told writer Stephanie Nolasco of Fox News how they felt about each other and their time on Happy Days. Winkler had a hard time dealing with his sudden fame, and Howard was able to provide some grounding for him. Winkler described this time, “It’s unnatural—the human condition does not prepare you for stardom. That’s just the way it is. So, you have to hold on to yourself and then you’ve got friends like Ron who doesn’t take it all seriously. I learned from him; he was my teacher. And Garry Marshall never took bad behavior from anybody. He was a father figure. He was very funny and very idiosyncratic, and then he was very strict.”

UNITED STATES – JULY 10: HAPPY DAYS – Gallery – Season Two – 7/10/75 Fonzie (Henry Winkler) Richie (Ron Howard) Potsie (Anson WIlliams) and Ralph (Donny Most) (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Winkler also discussed his friendship with Howard. “I think people gravitate to the Fonzie/Richie relationship because Ron and I are ten years apart. He was 19 and I was 27. We had a connection that you cannot describe in real life, and it was similar off-camera. He gave me my first mitt; I’d never played baseball before. He’s my brother.”

Howard echoed the sentiments. “We were fast friends from the beginning. It continues all these years later. It was exciting for me to work with Henry because he was really a trained actor who attended Yale Drama School; just a trained New York actor. And, I’d grown up sort of through the Hollywood television system, so for me to work with this guy who was so thoughtful, so creative, and yet so hilarious, was really an opportunity for me to learn and grow and we just clicked, you know.”

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 11: HAPPY DAYS – “Get a Job” 2/25/75 Ron Howard, Henry Winkler (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

The entire cast spent a lot of time together and participated in softball events. Marshall put the league together with casts from other television shows partly to help keep actors out of trouble and away from drugs. Winkler described the cast being “very much like a family. I love them, I talk to them, I email them, and I see them.”

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For eleven years Happy Days provided all of us with lovely memories of the Cunningham family and their friends. It is one of the best sitcoms of the 1970s and has held up beautifully in syndication. Life in the fifties was a fun and heart-warming time (at least on television), but all good things must come to an end, and Happy Days was no exception. The good news is we can get immersed back into the Cunninghams’ lives whenever we want to. Eleven seasons provides for a lot of binge watching. Better make some extra popcorn.

While John Forsythe Chose “To Rome with Love,” The Network Let the Show Roam Without Much Love

We continue our series with a salute to fathers looking at one of my favorite actors, John Forsythe in a little-remembered show, To Rome with Love.

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The show debuted on CBS in September of 1969 and aired until spring of 1971. In 1967 Forsythe had starred in The John Forsythe Show and in the successful sitcom, Bachelor Father, seven years before that.

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The John Forsythe Show

After the acclaim of Bachelor Father, The John Forsythe Show was a big disappointment. The premise of the show was that Forsythe as retired US Air Force Major John Foster inherits a private girls’ school in San Francisco. A buddy of his and former sergeant helps him run the school and they have conflicts with the principal Miss Culver. Forsythe once commented on it, saying “I choose to froget about that one. It was a disaster from the start. I hope the world forgets it too, especially the name.”

To Rome with Love also had a school setting. Forsythe played Michael Endicott, a widow with three daughters. He accepts a teaching position at an American school in Rome and relocates his family there from Iowa. His sister Harriet (Kay Medford) comes with the family for season one to help out. Endicott’s father-in-law, Andy Pruitt (Walter Brennan), comes to Rome to visit and ends up moving there during the second season.

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The oldest daughter is Alison (Joyce Menges), the middle is tomboy Penny (Susan Neher) and the youngest is Mary Jane, nicknamed Pokey (Melanie Fullterton). None of the girls continued in television past 1974. Menges had been a former tv and magazine model.  She appeared in two films, one before (1967) and one after (1972) the show. Fullerton made an appearance on High Chaparral before this show and appeared in two movies (1972 and 1974). Neher had the most productive acting career. She was cast on Accidental Family before appearing on To Rome with Love. After the show, she would guest star on Young Lawyers, Getting Together, Love American Style, The Partridge Family, with her last appearance was on Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers in 1974.

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Rounding out the cast was Vito Scotti who played Mr. Mancini and Peggy Mondo who was Mama Vitale in Rome.

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The show was on Sunday nights at 7:30 for the first year. It was up against Land of the Giants and The Wonderful World of Disney. The second year it switched to Tuesdays at 9:30 for the first half of the year on against movies of the week and then was moved to Wednesdays at 8:30 for the rest of the season. On Wednesdays it was up against The Smith Family and the Men from Shiloh. They were one-hour shows and To Rome with Love was on during the second half of both shows. The show never received the ratings the network had hoped for.

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Jack Gould reviewed the show before its debut. His comment was “the personable John Forsythe is the main asset of the series, but it is doubtful if he alone can overcome the handicap of imposing Hollywood nonsense on a city rich in drama and laughter and yet to be explored with understanding by TV. For the viewer, one solution is to turn off the sound and settle for incidental scenic background.” Donald Freeman from the San Diego Union called the show “all stereotyped and unfailingly pleasant.” Terrence O’Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle described it as a “giant pizza which appears to be filled with every situation comedy cliché in TV history and every Italian character actor south of San Luis Obispo. Dwight Newton of the San Francisco Examiner said it was “another little innocuous comedy drama series.” Apparently, viewers agreed with their opinions.

The combination of bad reviews and going up against Disney before moving to two different nights almost guaranteed its failure.

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Don Fedderson and Edmond Hartman produced the show. They were also the creative forces behind My Three Sons and Family Affair. An interesting concept was the cross-over episode. In season two, Anissa Jones and Johnnie Whitaker from Family Affair appear on the show on episode 4, “Roman Affair.” Episode 6 featured William Demarest, Don Grady, and Tina Cole from My Three Sons in “Rome is Where You Find It.”

After the show ended, Forsythe commented that his “fate is to be surrounded by ladies at home and at work which is not at all painful. I have a wife and two daughters at home. But on the television, I’ve always been unmarried. We might have started the single-parent trend with ‘Bachelor Father.’ Now the air is filed with widows and widowers raising children alone. There’s a reason for it. One unqualified parent dealing with children is more amusing because of the difficulty it presents.”

This sounded a bit exaggerated to me, so I went back to take a closer look at the shows that were on during the 1960s, and he was right. I always think of the typical sitcom as a nuclear family like the Donna Reed Show or Leave It To Beaver, but during this decade many shows were about adults. Think of Get Smart, The Joey Bishop Show, That Girl, The Odd Couple, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Flying Nun. When shows were about families, the norm was almost to have a single parent. In addition to Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, and Family Affair, we had The Farmer’s Daughter, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Doris Day Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, Gidget, and Julia. It wasn’t confined to sitcoms either; consider The Rifleman, Bonanza, and The Big Valley. The genre would continue into future decades as well. Some of the most popular shows featured single parents: The Partridge Family, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Nanny and the Professor, Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, Eight is Enough, and Alice.

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Fortunately for viewers, Forsythe did not throw in the towel and retire into obscurity. Forsythe would go on to star as Blake Carrington on Dynasty.

DNX6N3 Jan. 1, 1976 – F3353.”Charlie’s Angels”.FARRAH FAWCETT, KATE JACKSON, & JACLYN SMITH. 1976(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The show he is best remembered for is Charlie’s Angels, continuing his tradition of being surrounded by beautiful women on television.