Happy Days

The following article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV.

The landmark sitcom Happy Days (1974-84) was more than just a show about a clean-cut teenager and his cool biker pal- it bridged the gap between early TV sitcoms like Father Knows Best and edgy modern comedies like The Simpsons. Here's the story of Happy Days.


Tuesday night at 8PM. For nearly a decade, that time slot was owned by Happy Days. Debuting as a midseason replacement in January 1974 (in place of a hospital sitcom called Temperatures Rising), Happy Days ran for 255 episodes before signing off in 1984.

Millions tuned in each week to watch the Cunninghams, a 1950s family living in Milwaukee: naive teenager Richie (Ron Howard), his wise father Howard (Tom Bosley), doting mother Marion (Marion Ross), and precocious little sister Joanie (Erin Moran). Richie's friends were aspiring singer Potsie Weber (Anson Williams), cheesie jokester Ralph Malph (Donnie Most), and the epitome of cool- Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler).

Although Happy Days changed quite a bit over its 10-year run, its rating were strong for most of that time. The nostalgia and innocence of the half-hour morality tale became a refuge for some Americans during a turbulent decade, even if it took viewers (and network executives) a while to realize that.


The birth of Happy Days can be traced back to a conversation on a winter night in 1971. Two young TV executives, Michael Eisner (ABC) and Tom Miller (Paramount), were snowbound at Newark City Airport in New Jersey and began chatting. The duo lamented that there were no longer any family-oriented sitcoms like Father Knows Best. So they decided to create one.

After returning to Los Angeles, Eisner brought the idea to writer/producer Garry Marshall, who was enjoying great success with The Odd Couple. Marshall loved the idea but didn't think viewers would find such a show credible if it were set in modern times -opinions about politics and the Vietnam War made the generation gap an uncomfortable presence in many American homes. Marshall's solution: set the show, which he called Cool, in an idyllic, romanticized 1950s. The pilot, entitled "New Family in Town," was about a family who became the first on their block to own a TV, a 1950s rite of passage.


Eisner and Marshall convinced the bigwigs at ABC to finance the pilot, but there was a creative snag: Cool took place in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, where Marshall had grown up. The studio nixed that -too "ethnic"- and asked them to pick a Midwest city to cater to average Americans. They chose Milwaukee, where Miller's parents lived and owned a laundromat. So if the produce era needed to shoot on location, they'd get free lodging and dry cleaning. Test audiences liked the pilot but not the title, so Miller played on its warm nostalgia with a new name: Happy Days.

(YouTube link)

Marshall was sure they had a hit, but network brass viewed the pilot… and passed. Official reason: "No one cares about the 1950s anymore." In order to make their money back, ABC did what they had done with a lot of rejected comedy pilots: turned it over to producer Aaron Spelling to use as an episode on his anthology series Love, American Style. Called "Love and the Happy Days," the segment aired on February 25, 1972.


Later that year, George Lucas began casting for a movie about teenage life and car culture in the early 1960s, American Graffiti, and asked ABC for a copy of "Love and the Happy Days." In the pilot, he spotted Ron Howard, a young actor already famous for his boyhood role as Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. He thought Ron Howard might be right for the lead role of a naive teenager- essentially the same part he'd played in the pilot. According to Garry Marshall in his book Wake Me When Its Funny:

George took one look at Ron's performance as Richie Cunningham, with his honest fifties face and freckled I-still-look-like-Opie innocence, and cast him in Graffiti. When the film was released in 1973, it became a big hit and ushered in a nostalgic era in film and television. Then one day an executive at ABC said, "Don't we have something gathering dust on our shelf that takes place in the 1950s?" Michael Eisner said, "Yes, we do." Nostalgia was suddenly hot and my pilot was given a second life.

Marshall went back to work. Together with his new producing partner Ed Milkis, they filmed a new pilot with most of the roles recast. ABC wanted teen heartthrob Robbie Benson to play Richie, but Benson didn't want to do TV, so he conspired with Marshall to flub his audition.

That left the role open for Marshall's first choice: the originator of the role, Ron Howard. But this time he turned it down because he wanted to become a director. And after American Graffiti's success, he didn't want to play any more teenager roles (he was 20).


In the first season of Happy Days, the writers and performers were still finding their collective voice. Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham were more jaded than they would later be portrayed; Joanie was brattier; Potsie was a deviant; and Richie's older brother, Chuck (Gavin O'Herlihy), did little more than hold a basketball and insult Richie. Most of these characters changed and developed; Chuck was written out of the show completely.

Critics slammed the show for being a blatant ripoff of American Graffiti, not realizing that Happy Days actually came first. Viewers weren't impressed, either. As the show limped along, the ratings were so low that it was in danger of being cancelled. Something was missing.

But it turned out that Happy Days already had the edge it needed -standing right there in a gray windbreaker.


In 1973 Happy Days got a second chance, thanks to the success of American Graffiti and the stage production of Grease fueling a '50s nostalgia wave. Naturally, ABC wanted Garry Marshall to imitate those blockbusters and write in a gang of "greasers." He refused, believing that the show was already too derivative, but compromised by adding a single tough guy named Arthur Masciarelli (Marshall's real last name), who went by "Mash." But because of CBS's M*A*S*H, ABC feared that viewers might be confused, so the name was changed to Fonzarelli, "Fonzie" for short.

Marshall's first choice for the role was Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, whom Marshall thought had made a good biker during a guest turn on Adam-12. Dolenz read well, but there was one problem: He was a head taller than Ron Howard and Anson Williams.


So an audition call went out for a tough guy -a short tough guy. That's when a 5' 6.5"  actor named Henry Winkler -a self-described "New York Jew with a big nose"- read for the part. Winkler, 27, wasn't really interested in TV; he wanted to make serious films and be the next Dustin Hoffman. But he had played a 1950s leather-jacket-wearing tough in the movie The Lords of Flatbush, so when a similar role came up in ABC's new sitcom, his agent urged him to audition.

Winkler didn't think he was tough enough, so be borrowed some of the mannerisms of his Flatbush co-star, Sylvester Stallone. Producer Tom Miller loved Winkler. Marshall responded, "This is my Fonzie?" He reluctantly agreed to cast Winkler but didn't give him any lines in the first episode.


Much of the credit for Fonzie' development goes to Winkler himself. As a trained dramatic actor, he was interested in exploring the character's emotional side. And there were a few scripted character traits that he changed because they didn't ring true:

* In the script, Fonzie was supposed to wear a cloth jacket and penny loafers. Winkler showed up on set wearing black leather boots and a leather jacket. But ABC censors considered leather too "hoodlum," so the Fonz wore a gray windbreaker instead. He was only permitted to wear his leather jacket while riding his motorcycle, because then it would be "safety gear." Marshall's solution: put Fonzie on his bike as often as possible. (Winkler, ironically, was afraid of riding the motorcycle. He almost crashed into the director of photography on his first solo ride, so for the rest of the series, Fonzie's motorcycle rides were staged -he was towed on a flatbed truck.)

* Winkler invented Fonzie's most famous catchphrase by "reducing language to sound," as he put it. In an early scene, Fonzie had several lines that were supposed to convey how cool he was. Instead, Winkler said simply, "Aaayyy."

* Every other '50s thug in movies and TV kept a pack of cigarettes in the sleeve of his white t-shirt and was constantly combing his hair. Winkler refused to do either. When series director Jerry Paris instructed Fonzie to comb his hair in the bathroom at Arnold's, Winkler asked if he could try something else: Fonzie walks up to the mirror, pulls out his comb, shrugs as if to say, "Hey, it's perfect," and pulls the comb away without using it.

"The Fonz was my alter ego," recalls Winkler. "He was everybody I wasn't. I was a bowl of jelly; he was in charge."


With Winkler's input, the Fonzie character became a big draw and got more on-screen time. Fonzie moved into the Cunningham's garage and became Richie's mentor and best friend, teaching him how to stick up for himself. In turn, Richie taught the Fonz the importance of family.The pairing of this unlikely duo -a dropout and a square- added dimension to both characters. (Off screen, Winkler and Howard became close friends as well.)

Another big boost for the show came at the beginning of the third season, when Happy Days switched from a single-camera closed-set shoot -each scene was shot three times from from a different angle, like a movie- to a three-camera setup in front of a studio audience. Performing live allowed the cast to get instant feedback, which improved their comic timing. Viewers noticed, and the ratings steadily grew. The show moved up to 10th place in its third season. by the following year, it was #1.


In the show, Fonzie snapped his fingers and girls flocked to him. With a knock on the jukebox, he got music to play. Guys wanted to be him; girls wanted to be with him. School kids, carrying their Fonzie lunch boxes, gave each other thumbs-up and said, "Correctamundo!" People magazine wrote in 1976: "The Fonz has become TV's super character, cooler than Kojak, hotter than Mr. Kotter's 'sweathogs,' more explosive than Good Times dyn-o-mite." Winkler received nearly 50,0000 fan letters per week. After an episode in which Fonzie got a library card, U.S. libraries reported a 500-percent increase in cards issued.

ABC even considered changing the name of the show to Fonzie's Happy Days, or simply Fonzie. However, Ron Howard and Garry Marshall threatened to quit if that happened. Even Winkler protested it. So ABC left the title alone.

Happy Days was cruising along at the top of the ratings, the cast was having a blast, and it seemed like Marshall and company could do no wrong.

And then Fonzie jumped over a shark.


Fans and critics are still debating whether the beginning of the end for Happy Days came during the three-part season premiere in September 1977. In a now-famous scene, Fonzie, awkwardly dressed in swim trunks and his leather jacket, donned a pair of water skis and jumped over a shark to "overcome his fear of sharks." A few years later, two college students coined the phrase "jump the shark" to describe "the moment when you know that your favorite show has reached its peak. From then on, it will simply never be the same." About a decade later, they created the website Jump The Shark where TV fans could weigh in on where other TV shows jumped the proverbial shark. [ed. note: the website is now defunct.]

(YouTube link)

Whether or not the quality of Happy Days declined after the shark episode is a matter of debate, but there's no doubt the show remained popular. As Henry Winkler often points out, "We were #1 [in its time slot] for four more years after I jumped over that shark." The episode's writer, Fred Fox, Jr. has also defended it: "It was huge, ranking No. 3 for the week and an audience of more than 30 million viewers." Most critics point out that if Happy Days ever truly did "jump the shark," it occurred three years later when Richie and Ralphie left the show and Potsie was demoted to the role of bumbling store clerk in Howard Cunningham's hardware store. Fonzie "grew up," becoming a shop teacher at Jefferson High and even entered a monogamous relationship. His main focus shifted to helping Joanie and Chachi keep out of trouble.


The show's final years brought even more changes. Ted McGinley joined the cast as Roger Phillips, a coach at Jefferson High. But Roger never really meshed with viewers, and the ratings dropped considerably. Erin Moran and Scott Baio left in 1982 to star in the short-lived spinoff Joanie Loves Chachi.

Furthermore, Fonzie was no longer a cool rebel -he got a job teaching high school shop class and adopted a troubled boy- and nothing had replaced the Richie-Fonzie dynamic that had made the show so popular. But the strangest choice was that Happy Days didn't take its characters into the turbulent 1960s. Nothing was mentioned of Kennedy's assassination. When Richie and Ralphie joined the Army in 1962, they weren't shipped to Vietnam but to Greenland.

Happy Days ended after the 1984 season with a bittersweet series finale, in which Ron Howard returned as Richie, and Joanie and Chachi got married. In the final scene, Howard Cunningham gave a toast, during which he turned to the camera and said to the viewers, "Thank you all for being part of our family." Then he raised his glass and said, "To happy days."


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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ABC wanted teen heartthrob Robbie Benson to play Richie

That's J.T. Marsh from Exosquad! Cool. I didn't know that.

When Richie and Ralphie joined the Army in 1962, they weren't shipped to Vietnam but to Greenland.

That's not actually unreasonable. Large numbers of US troops didn't arrive in Vietnam until 1965.
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