Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Beginning - HAPPY DAYS

Donny Most, Anson Williams, Gavan O' Herlihy (Back l-r)Marion Ross, Tom Bosley, Erin Moran, Ronny Howard & Henry Winkler (Front l-r)

Back in the day, or more precisely the year 1970, the world was a different place:  A turmoil of chaos had engulfed the U.S.A. and the reminiscent were stinging loud and clear as the death of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other tragedies consumed America’s conscious.  “American the Beautiful…God sent his grace on thee.” [sing along] The United States could be an unpredictable place to be in the 1970s with movements such as gay rights, growing women's rights, and environmental movements, as well as 1970s fashion and music and massive protesting on college campuses across the U.S. Nostalgia for simpler times seemed inevitable.  Many areas of the population appeared to find safety in the past.  Thus, the marketability for nostalgia was coming into full bloom.  It was during this time that T.V. Producer, Garry Marshall was approached to write and

Producer, Garry Marshall
produce a modern day version of a very popular TV show set in the 1930s called “I Remember Mama” but he turned it down. He reasoned “I wasn’t alive then.  I had no interest in what was going on in the Thirties.” However, the simple concept of creating a comedy set in the past did appeal to him. He was interested in doing somethingor so, Americans became increasingly fascinated with Fifties nostalgia.  For example, the Broadway musical, “Grease,” set in the Fifties became an enormous hit.  In August of 1973, American Graffiti was released. Celebrating the end of the Fifties, the George Lucas directed film turned out to be one of the best films of the year.  Incidentally, it is rumored that on the basis of viewing the “Love and the Happy Days” pilot, Lucas cast Ron Howard as the lead in American Graffiti. The apparent instant success of these two productions as well as the popularity of bands like Sha, Na, Na which revived and parodied 1950s rock and roll demonstrated the mass-market appeal of Fiftie’s nostalgia and rekindled ABC-TV’s interest in Gary Marshall’s “Happy Days idea.” 

Representing ABC-TV, Michael Eisner told Marshall he was interested in developing Happy Days but with some changes.  Apparently, they thought the pilot was a little too “soft and warm” and not as funny as it could be.  Inspired by the Pharaohs in American Graffiti the network wanted a gang as one of the elements in the show that revolved around the middle-class family.   Even though gangs were a part of the Fifties Marshall was reluctant. A compromise was made.  Instead of having a whole gang as one of the elements, Marshall created a character from the other side of the tracks that was a high school drop-out, a few years older and slightly more worldly than the other teens.

An early press photo
Marshall continued to revise the original ideas first developed in the pilot.  He modified the kid’s hangout to be much larger and with more teenagers. Cars were another element added to the show.  Apparently, American Graffiti was the inspiration for the inclusion of cars.  Marshall understood the importance of cars in the lives of the average teenage kid as an important and realistic element. It lent the fifties vibe a certain amount of authenticity.  The addition of cars meant more scenes would have to be filmed outdoors. 
The addition of cars meant more scenes would have to be filmed outdoors.  

Although Happy Days takes place in the Fifties, Gary Marshall has said that he believed this to be a superficial element.  Underneath this element was the real theme of the series: to explore and reflect on the pain of adolescence.  There were two basic male adolescent pains that Marshall wanted to focus on. The first had to do with girls. This theme was expressed through Ritchie, Potsie and Ralph’s endless search for dates and Fonzie’s female expertise and infinite wisdom on dating skills.  The second pain has to do with “being a man,” standing up for the values you believe in and not backing down or being a coward.
Author of 'The Official Fonzie Scrapbook," Ben Davidson has pointed out that the typical early Happy Days episode can be broken down into three categories:
1.      The “Fonzie-hero” show,
2.      The “Family” show and
3.      The “Examination” show.
 Notable examples of the last category:  the “Examination show” includes:
·         a.) Ritchie questioning yellow journalism,
·         b.) Fonzie’s examination of marriage,
·         c.) Ritchie’s problem of supporting presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson and upholding his family’s pro-Eisenhower stance.

Erin Moran as Joanie
Once the story plots and themes were created, Producer, Garry Marshall then focused on casting. Finding someone to play Fonzie was a difficult task and involved many tryouts.  However, one day it looked as though casting an actor as Fonzie would no longer be a problem.  Executive Producer, Tomas L. Miller came to Marshall, “He’s not quite what your image is.  He’s not that tall, bully type but he can do it with his eyes and his voice.” It was Henry Winkler. The roles of both Joanie played by Erin Moran and Mrs. C. by Marion Ross were the easiest to cast.  Marion Ross was perfect and Erin Moran has worked with Marshall before.  He reasoned, she was funny before she will probably be funny again. Ron Howard as Ritchie was familiar to Marshall from way back to the “Andy Griffith Show.” In Marshall’s view was that Howard had the amazing talent of representing something very American along with the potential to be funny.     
He had the quality of being a nice kid that made him perfect for the part.  Marshall wanted a dark-haired character to contrast with Ritchie’s red hair who would be Ritchie’s closest friend and often the instigator of action, this of course was Potsie played by Anson Williams.  Similar to Henry Winkler, the character of Potsie came recommended by Executive Producer, Tom Miller.  Although his list of acting credits was not very large, Williams worked so well with Ron Howard that he got the part.  Another young actor who tried out for the role of Potsie was impressive.  His name was Donny Most.  One of the things going against Most was the fact that he had red hair.  Although not quite right for the part of Potsie, he was still extremely funny. Marshall believed he could add nothing but a fantastic and humorous element to the show.  Marshall created the role of Ralph Malph exclusively for Donny Most.  According to writer, Ben Davidson, the biggest casting problem was finding the perfect actor to play Mr. C.  Harold Gould had filled the original part in the first pilot episode but he was working on another project when casting for the new pilot took place.  There was some conflict over the network and Marshall over how the father of the family should be portrayed.  The network wanted a wise “Father Knows Best,” (T.V. show, 1954-60) image for “Howard Cunningham” but Marshall had a different vision.  He wanted Howard Cunningham to be a normal, vulnerable, real-life father.  A conflict emerged but in the end Marshall’s view won.  Marshall has said, “You need a veteran in there to solidify the work.  When I first met Tom I was impressed by his togetherness as a person.  When you do a series week after week, you need that kind of stability.”
Beatrice Colen as "Marsha" the car hop

Original T.V. Synopsis for first Happy Days episode (click on document to enlarge)

  One of the biggest obstacles, second only to sets and costumes, was geography.  Marshall was born and raised in New York and he could have constructed the setting to take place in New York.  However, he chose Milwaukee, Tom Miller’s home town.  was a compromise between East and West.  Marshall had hired his writers from both east and west coasts and Miller was the middle ground.    The compromise was the source of arguments because the surface elements of the Fifties varied according to where one grew up.  Another compromise was stuck when an effort was made to use a little from here and a little from there. The results became a mix of nostalgia that at no time existed all at once or in the same place.   Happy Days premiered January 15, 1974 as a mid-season replacement.  There was a lot of skepticism that the show would fail because it was pitted against two other popular TV series, “Maude,”(TV series 1972-79) and “Adam 12” (1968-75).  Despite the likelihood it would fail, Tom Bosley, “Mr. C.” was optimistic.  He said, “I feel viewers are ready for a well-done, strictly entertaining show that they can just sit back and enjoy.”He turned out to be right.  Happy Days became an instant success during its first few weeks on the air Happy Days was never meant to possess a hilarious joke-heavy style but rather a show that pandered to the show’s single-camera strengths. During the early Seventies, single camera comedies-filmed-on location without an audience-were viewed as more contemplative and less dependent upon broad jokes.  

Ron Howard, seen here with sheriff, "Andy" and "Deputy Fife," on the single camera comedy, "The Andy Griffith Show" (1960-68) . In 1974 Howard became a household name playing teenager Richie Cunningham in the sitcom Happy Days, continuing for seven years
Another single camera sit-com long running series, “My Three Sons,” CBS sitcom, (1960-72).

The early Happy Days stories for the first few seasons were small and revolved around clean-cut, honest kid, Richie Cunningham (Howard), who had to face the typical adolescent attractions. When typical difficulties arose for example, dating  girls, joining a gang, or how to fix a car, Ritchie would defer to others such as his father, Howard Cunningham aka “Mr. C.” or Fonzie who with his quiet and subdued manner would gladly dispense advice, even if the advice was not always the right advice.  Yes, Howard Cunningham and Fonzie were both fallible.

Tom Bosley "Howard Cunningham," & Ron Howard "Ritchie Cunningham," in a publicity pic representative of the close bond between father and son in a typical "Family" episode.

I polished my bike for a kiss???
The Fonz as played by Henry Winkler, seemed like the definition of cool in the early days.  He had a strong silent manner and was on the sidelines and now and then gave counsel to Ritchie with the advice he needed in a particular situation.  The Fonz was designed to be a warning to Ritchie and others as to the kind of guy they might turn out to be if he didn’t follow the straight-and-narrow and nerdy path they were on.
In the beginning, Fonzie represented someone from the other side of the tracks who everyone wished they could be like.  Perhaps, not exactly, but wanting some of his characteristics-mainly his coolness and power to resist being pushed around.
Original caption to the photo above.

Gavan O' Herlihy as Chuck
The other networks moved their shows around to the same time slot as Happy Days in order to find a program that would compete with the new nostalgic show.  Eventually, another network, CBS

would find a TV program that could out distance Happy Days in the ratings.  It was called, “Good Times.”  In order to compete with the laugh out loud and silly humor of Good Times,  Happy Days would have to make several compromises to its upcoming third season. The networks told Marshall to bring the show indoors to beef up the humor.  “Outside you can get nice pictures but, indoors you can be funnier,”  but you can’t have both, he was told. It’s just too expensive to put it together.   This in turn would cause Garry Marshall to change the format of Happy Days into a 3-camera series filmed in front of a live studio audience.   The outrageous humor that Marshall had previously tried to avoid became the main writing outline for the show.  Happy Days had been more character-driven but changed to a show about crazy situations that characters get involved in. The characters would fall into comas, meet aliens and even jump sharks. 

Fonzie would become the main star of the revised Happy Days and in the first episode of Season 3 Fonzie would get closer to the action by moving into an apartment above the Cunningham’s garage which didn’t exist until the premiere of season 3. In an apparent move to compete with the loud humorous character of J.J. on the hit CBS series, “Good Times,” Marshall chose to change Fonzie’s character from a strong silent type to more of a heroic, loud and rowdy character beating out every sentence and playing up each line as much as possible.  “Good Times” star J.J. Walker had the catch phrase,  “Dy-no-mite!!!” So the writers and actor had to find a catchphrase for Fonzie.  Eventually, Fonzie became attributed to shouting the saying, “Aaayyyy"" and "Whoa!" In addition, as the show continued, Fonzie gained magical powers such as punching  a  jukebox, pinball machine or other device to make it work. And, work it did!  The changes caused the show to immediately become extremely popular in its third season and by season 4, Happy Day entered the Nielson Top 10 and continued to go strong for the rest of its entire 10-season, 10-year run.  Not everyone is a fan of the show’s changes made back in the Fall of 1975.  However, there are still 39 early episodes on DVD and on the internet for those of us who relish those Happy Days.

Fonzie in the ABC network series p1 (click on document to enlarge)

Fonzie before he learned magic powers to turn off and on the jukebox by banging his fist on the top.
In "Love & the Happy Days" Sheila Jo Guthrie dates Ron Howard with the expectations of watching his family's new TV.  This was a precursor to the Happy Days series
Original credits and production data for the first episode of what would be a ten year running series.

~ ENDE ~
  • Davidson, Ben. The Official Fonzie Scrapbook. 1976. Today Press. Grosset & Dunlap. New York.
  • Getty Images. Website:
  •  Results for "happy Days"
  • VanDerWerff, Todd (8/27/12). Happy Days became one of the biggest hits on TV by Selling its Soul.  AV/TV Club website  Retrieved 12/05/2018.