There’s something about sitcoms that captures our attention. Whether it’s the lovable cast of characters, the zany situations, or the neat bow that wraps up every episode, it’s always fun for the whole family. Happy Days had all of those ingredients, plus a little something extra.
For almost 10 years, Fonzie and company created television magic. But for all the success the show enjoyed on the air, there were some other things going on behind the scenes that you weren’t supposed to know about.
Happy Days almost had a different name: Cool. While that describes Fonzie pretty well, it doesn’t exactly capture the vibe of the show. Producers also considered another alternative title, too…
Once producers knew that Fonzie was going to be an iconic character, they wanted to ride his popularity. At one point, they even considered calling the show Fonzie’s Happy Days; the rest of the cast was probably glad they decided against it, though.
Happy Days is firmly set in the 1950s, complete with jukeboxes, motorcycles, and leather jackets, but the characters almost lived in a different decade. The original plan was to set the show in the 1920s or ’30s, but creator Garry Marshall chose the era he grew up in.
And speaking of the setting, the real Cunningham house is actually in California, not Wisconsin. So how did Happy Days end up calling Milwaukee home?
Producer Tom Miller actually pitched the idea of setting the show in his hometown of Milwaukee. He thought a Midwestern city would help a larger portion of America relate to the show. Safe to say his idea worked.
The original pilot episode featured several notable differences from the beloved Happy Days we all know. Most notably, Mr. Cunningham was played by Howard Gould; he was unable to make a long-term commitment, so Tom Bosley took over the character instead.
But after viewing the pilot episode, ABC decided to pass on the series. The success of American Graffiti, however, inspired them to revisit the pilot and give Happy Days a shot. Weirdly, there’s another connection between the show and the George Lucas film.
Most people assume the movie inspired Happy Days, but it’s actually the other way around. Lucas saw Ron Howard’s performance in the series pilot and then decided to cast him as Steve Bolander. He was only on Happy Days due to a lucky coincidence, though.
Because in actuality, the original plan was for Robbie Benson to play Richie, but he wasn’t keen on the role. Series creator Garry Marshall also thought someone else would be a better fit, so the two conspired for Benson to throw his audition.
Meanwhile, Ron Howard was interested in becoming a director, but he accepted the role for one major reason: immediate employment meant he could avoid being drafted and shipped out to join the Vietnam War. While he was happy to be on the show, other folks cast weren’t as easy to work with.
Remember Pinky Tuscadaro? She was supposed to be Fonzie’s love interest but, in reality, actress Roz Kelly didn’t get along with most of the cast, including Henry Winkler himself. She was quickly written out of the series, just like another character…
In the first two seasons, Richie and Joanie had an older brother, but he slowly disappeared over time. That was caused by two factors that you might not have expected…
First, audiences simply never cared about Chuck. But, perhaps more crucially, Fonzie had inherited the “older brother” role on the show; popularity-wise, no one can compete with The Fonz! He could have been a very different character, though.
Micky Dolenz, who would go on to be cast in The Monkees, nearly played Fonzie. His auditions went well, but Dolenz was too tall for the role, leaving it for Winkler. Still, the studios almost spoiled everything.
Fonzie is nothing without his leather jacket, right? Well he almost didn’t get to wear it on the show. ABC felt leather jackets had a gang connotation and wanted him to wear a different coat instead.
If the network got their wish, he’d have worn a pale windbreaker. Not exactly the height of coolness. Thankfully, Marshall convinced ABC that wearing a leather jacket was simply a safe way to ride a motorcycle, and they relented.
Winkler’s eventual portrayal of Fonzie was so iconic that he was approached to play Danny Zuko in Grease. He turned down the offer, however, for one major reason: he isn’t a good singer.
Also, Winkler is dyslexic, which made table reads and learning his lines challenging. He managed to turn that disability into an advantage, using humor and improvisation to cover up for mistakes. That made Fonzie a real, living character rather than a dry performance.
Remember the jukebox that Fonzie would bang on at Arnold’s? It only played covers sung by an unexpected vocalist: Anson Williams. He played Potsy, the show’s nerdy but talented musician and was actually a skilled singer in real life.
You’ve probably heard of the phrase “Jump the shark,” meaning a series has started to decline in quality, but did you know the term came from Happy Days? In one of the show’s later episodes Fonzie, leather jacket and all, went water-skiing and jumped over a shark.
Pat Morita was born in California and spoke perfect English, so he created an accent for his role as Arnold. He would later make famous use of that voice as Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid.
Happy Days inspired plenty of spin-offs, but did you know there was a brief animated series? A cartoon Fonzie starred in The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang before appearing in the animated version of Laverne and Shirley.
Fonzie might not be renowned for his book smarts, but Winkler made a wise business decision off-screen. He chose to accept a small salary in exchange for a share of the show’s merchandising and syndication profits. Happy Days‘ success ensured his gamble paid off.
The cast might have been close on the screen, but they stayed together outside the studio, too. They formed a softball team, playing against other teams for charity and visiting military bases around the country.
On the show, Fonzie and Mrs. Cunningham had a special relationship; she was, after all, the only one allowed to call him by his real name. In real life, Winkler and Marion Ross also remained close friends. Just goes to show the Fonz is a pretty cool guy, though during the show the actor who played him was in trouble.
Though Henry Winkler was flourishing on set, his life wasn’t all that it seemed to be. Because before the world had called him “The Fonz,” he was struggling at home.
See, his mother and father escaped to America from Germany on the brink of World War II. Their experiences left scars, making them pretty verbally abusive. It can’t be easy for your parents to call you a “dumb dog” all the time!
And Henry was faring no better at school. We’d all love for all teachers to be Miss Honeys, but in reality, you get a few Dolores Umbridges tossed in there. When Henry did poorly in school, his parents punished him at home.
Making life harder, Henry suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia, but because the condition wasn’t well understood in the 1950s, Henry’s teachers were not supportive of his struggle and let him believe he was, in fact, a “dumb dog.”
But Henry wouldn’t give up without a fight and pressed on through his dyslexia. By the end of high school, he was graduating (almost) on time and was even accepted to Emerson College. And he didn’t stop there.
By the time he’d graduated from Emerson, Henry knew he wanted to be an actor and applied to the Yale School of Drama. During his audition for the school, he forgot his lines but improvised so well that he was accepted.
However, after graduating, he knew it was going to be a whole different story. When your whole job is dependent on reading scripts, you’re going to run into an issue from time to time if you can’t read well. Still, he never looked at this as an obstacle. Just a challenge.
“I never read anything the way that it was written in my entire life,” Henry said. “I could instantly memorize a lot of it, and then what I didn’t know, I made up and threw caution to the wind and did it with conviction, and sometimes, I made them laugh; and sometimes, I got hired.”
And he did get hired. By the age of 27, Henry was starring on one of the biggest sitcoms to ever grace the small screen: Happy Days. Henry’s Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli was the definition of “cool” and played off the rest of the show’s middle-of-the-road characters.
With a couple of key catchphrases under his belt, he quickly became a fan favorite but at first, he hadn’t been pegged as a central protagonist. Once the producers realized how popular and talented he was, they had no choice but to keep him around. Things should have been “fabamundo;” sadly, that wasn’t the case.
See, after eleven record-breaking seasons, Henry was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But that success was a double-edged sword.
Henry was ready to move on to new roles, but because he was so beloved as Fonzie, producers only ever wanted to cast him as that suaver-than-suave Italian-American. He was being stereotyped. He knew he had only one way out of the problem.
With no options left, Henry made the tough decision to quit acting to focus on a career as a producer and director. And lucky for him, he turned out to be immediately successful there too; one of his first projects as a producer was none other than the hit TV show MacGyver. He had other plans, too.
Behind the cameras, Henry focused on other areas of his life, like his family. By 1978, Henry had married Stacey Weitzman and had become a father figure for her son from an earlier marriage, Jed. But his stepson made Henry discover something that would change his life forever.
See, Henry realized he was quickly falling into the same patterns as his parents. Jed was struggling in school, and Henry would just encourage him to work harder and put in more effort. What he didn’t know was that their situations were more alike than he thought.
Henry and Stacey brought Jed to a doctor to be tested and sure enough, Jed had dyslexia. This was huge news — and not just for Jed! “I went, ‘Oh my goodness. I have something with a name,'” remembered Henry. “That was when I first got it.”
It wasn’t until 2018, more than 30 years later, that Henry decided it was time to get back on TV in a starring role in HBO’s Barry. When it debuted on HBO, no one knew if it would be a hit. A comedy about a hitman who becomes an actor? Sounded crazy!
But once it started raking in award after award, one thing became clear: fans had been anxiously awaiting Henry’s return to the small screen all those years. One of the biggest awards Barry took home? Outstanding Supporting Actor for Henry’s performance, his first primetime Emmy win in 40 years.
Through it all, Henry was proud to make it back to the top. “I am what I am,” he said, “and I am pretty comfortable with who I am and how I got to where I am with my learning challenges.” He was especially thrilled to collaborate with one old friend.
Over his retirement, Henry crossed path with Happy Days’ Ron Howard while working on the short-lived sitcom Arrested Development. The two no doubt had a lot of catching up to do after decades apart!
That’s because for nearly six decades, Ron Howard has been a staple of Hollywood success. Yet while the beloved actor and award-winning director seemingly put the Howard name on the map, he actually wasn’t the first in the family to make it big.
Ron’s father, Rance Howard, was the one responsible for introducing the Howards to Hollywood, having begun his acting career in 1948. After a stint as a player in a New York-based touring company, his role as Lindstrom in the company’s 1950 production of Mister Roberts soon gained him national attention.
It was then off to California for Rance, who made his feature film debut in the 1956 western Frontier Woman. The film also served as Ron’s feature debut, as, at just two years old, he was cast in a bit part.
Ron Howard / Facebook
Still, this appearance proved to be the perfect stepping stone for young Ron Howard, who soon earned his breakout role as Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. And all the while, Rance was still hard at work building a career of his own.
After a number of consistent television appearances, Rance was cast in a handful of popular films and scored a recurring role alongside son Clint in the 1967 series Gentle Ben. With both of their careers taking off, it was only a matter of time before Ron and Rance would find themselves sharing the screen once again.
Six years after their work on Frontier Woman, the father and son duo appeared together on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, with Rance playing the role of a bus driver. He’d return for three more episodes, including one where he played the part of a stickler treasury agent (below).
The Andy Griffith Show Wiki
However, it was Ron’s time on the show that stood out the most, and after a few more years of one-and-done TV gigs, he broke back into the mainstream in George Lucas’ American Graffiti. His performance landed him his most notable role yet.
The New York Times
Just a year after American Graffiti, Ron was cast in the classic sitcom Happy Days. Ron’s role as the straight-shooting Richie Cunningham soon made him a household name, though Rance had hardly become the forgotten Howard by this point.
The Today Show
The mid-’70s to late ’80s saw Rance come into his own as a character actor, most often playing authority types like sheriffs, marshals, and even priests. He did break this trend, however, when it came to acting alongside his son, which he did on more than one occasion during Ron’s Happy Days tenure.
Even in Ron’s directorial debut, 1977’s Grand Theft Auto, Rance showed this willingness to go the extra mile when it came to working with his son. Not only did Rance appear in the film, but he also executive produced it and even co-wrote the script with Ron.
Street Muscle Magazine
Shortly after making Grand Theft Auto, Ron pursued directing full time and left Happy Days in 1980. His next projects – most of which were TV movies – failed to woo audiences like his acting roles once did, though in 1982, the success of his film Night Shift proved that directing was truly his calling.
A slew of high-visibility projects soon followed, including Splash (1984), Apollo 13 (1995), How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Frost/Nixon (2008). And while all of these films varied greatly in subject matter, they all had one thing in common — Rance Howard.
Whether in bit parts, speaking roles, or as a background extra, Rance can be found in all of these Ron Howard flicks. However, these are by no means the highlights of the elder Howard’s career.
In fact, by the time he appeared in Frost/Nixon, the storied actor already had well over 100 film and TV credits to his name. Even at age 80, Rance was still proving that good acting never gets old.
Sadly, Rance wouldn’t get the chance to add another 100 credits to his resume, as nine years later, he passed away from complications due to West Nile virus. Hollywood mourned the beloved actor, though it was Ron’s touching tribute to his father that truly spoke to Rance’s incredible life.
“Clint and I have been blessed to be Rance Howard’s sons. Today he passed at 89,” Ron tweeted. “He stood especially tall for his ability to balance ambition with great personal integrity. A depression-era farm boy, his passion for acting changed the course of our family history. We love & miss U Dad.”
Ron’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, also took to Twitter to share her thoughts on the passing of her grandfather. In the post, Bryce shared Henry Van Dyke’s “Gone From My Sight,” referencing it as significant to the entire Howard family.
“My grandfather, the patriarch of our family’s favorite poem,” she said in her message above a screenshot of the work. “[He] could recite it from heart. I think I’ll do the same now.”
While the news of Rance’s loss was surely heartbreaking, fans could take comfort in the fact that his 2017 film Broken Memories wasn’t his final role. He was set to appear in a handful of future projects post mortem, ensuring that Rance’s legacy will live on forever.
Gordon Vasquez / Flickr