Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'Happy Days' Turns 40

Forty years ago tonight, America got its first look at Happy Days, a midseason replacement for something (like the guy who was replaced by Lou Gehrig, who remembers? OK, it was Wally Pipp who was replaced by Gehrig, but no one remembers what Happy Days replaced) — and a nostalgia wave was born.

Well, that isn't really true, I guess. That particular nostalgia wave probably began a few months earlier when "American Graffiti" hit the movie theaters. But, while "American Graffiti" did have some stars who went on to greater fame on (or by way of) Happy Days, it wasn't a natural extension of "American Graffiti."

"American Graffiti" was set in the early 1960s; in its early episodes, Happy Days was set in the mid–1950s, although, by the time it ended its run, Happy Days was set in the early 1960s, too.

Neither the film nor the TV show introduced Americans to Ron Howard, only to an older version of him. Howard, of course, played Opie on the iconic Andy Griffith Show in the real early 1960s, and Tom Bosley, who wasn't in the movie, was a familiar face to TV viewers thanks to his series and commercial appearances, but the rest of the cast were largely unknowns.

(Well, Marion Ross' face probably was familiar enough for viewers to scratch their heads and wonder, "Now, who is she? I know I've seen her in something else ...")

Before this night 40 years ago, though, few, if any, knew who Henry Winkler was. No one expected his character, Arthur Fonzarelli, to be the cultural sensation that he became. Cast members who became household names because of Happy Days included Anson Williams (Pottsie), Donny Most (Ralph) and Erin Moran (Joanie).

Cindy Williams, who did appear in "American Graffiti," was not an original star of the show, but she made a guest appearance on it that led to her long–term role on the popular spinoff show, Laverne & Shirley.

One of my enduring questions about Happy Days, though, was whatever became of the oldest of the Cunningham children, Chuck, played by Gavan O'Herlihy, who appeared in a few episodes and then disappeared with virtually no explanation.