‘Happy Days’ Cast Looks Back on 50th Anniversary of Hit Show’s Premiere

On Tuesday night, Jan. 15, 1974, Richie, Potsie, Ralph and Fonzie entered our living rooms for a visit that would end up lasting more than a decade.

Created by Garry Marshall, “Happy Days” arrived as a comic but earnest chronicle of adolescence in 1950s Milwaukee. It revolved around Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his equally hormonal pals — Warren “Potsie” Weber (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Donny Most) — along with the rest of the Cunninghams: Richie’s younger sister, Joanie (Erin Moran); mother, Marion (Marion Ross); and father, Howard (Tom Bosley). (Chuck, an older brother played by a series of actors, disappeared early in the show’s run.)

“Happy Days” didn’t really take off with viewers until a couple of seasons later, when it was retooled into a broader multicamera sitcom oriented around the local tough turned mentor and guardian angel, Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler), known the world over as the Fonz. In the 1976-77 season, “Happy Days” became the most-watched show on television, supplanting “All in the Family.” It ran until the summer of 1984, a total of 11 seasons, while generating multiple spinoffs — “Laverne & Shirley,” “Mork & Mindy,” “Joanie Loves Chachi” — and untold tons of Fonzie merchandise.

In December, the surviving members of the original core cast — Howard, 69; Most, 70; Williams, 74; Winkler, 78; and Ross, 95 — met in a video chat to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Happy Days.” (Bosley died in 2010, Moran in 2017.) They reminisced about the special bond they felt at the time and have felt ever since, and how the elevation of Fonzie was integral to the show’s popularity. (Disclosure: I helped Williams on his campaign for mayor of Ojai, Calif., in 2022, and we are friends.)

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What were some of the factors that helped “Happy Days” become a hit?

RON HOWARD We had great chemistry, and the writers knew how to write for that, but I also think that this collision of Garry Marshall’s sense of young guys and fun and energy and [the executive producer] Tom Miller’s sense of what an American family meant at that time was the secret sauce of the show.

HENRY WINKLER We were telling the same stories of the actual time, of the ’70s, but because it was placed in the past, it never felt as if the moral of the story was hitting you on the head.

ANSON WILLIAMS When they changed to live audience, three camera, that’s when the chemistry really came in, when we could work together as a team every day.

HOWARD And Henry created this amazing character that captured everybody’s imagination. There was an older guy called Fonzie, but he had six lines in the first episode. Henry, from the first moment, began offering the show, the writers, the actors, this other possibility.

The show arrived during Watergate and the waning years of the Vietnam War. Do you think people were eager to re-embrace what they saw as the values of the past?

WINKLER It is exactly what everybody is looking for all the time: They’re looking for warmth and peace, some comedy, some relief. Anson said Tom and Garry created a team by creating a baseball team. We traveled all over the world. We played together, and the person who plays together stays together.

How would you describe Garry Marshall’s role as the series progressed?

MARION ROSS He was so important to the show. He was the father of this whole group.

WILLIAMS Garry was also very influential for all of us to wear other hats in the industry. He wanted us to use the Paramount lot as a college: Learn other areas, watch other directors, come to the writers’ room. I think the reason all of us today are still involved and productive is because of Garry. He wanted us to have the best lives we could possibly have.

HOWARD I’ve been around a lot of very talented people over my career, even before “Happy Days.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better boss, a better creative manager of people and ideas than Garry Marshall.

WINKLER He was generous but also was structured. He took no bad behavior. One time, when he was announcing the guest cast, I said, “Garry, we have to hurry up because I’m flying to Arkansas.” He nodded, put down the microphone, grabbed me by my shirt, put me against the wall and said, “Don’t ever do that again, because they have every right to be recognized like you.” He kept us in line.

Beginning in its second season, “Happy Days” aired opposite “Good Times,” which also premiered in 1974 and became a big hit with its own pop culture phenom, Jimmie Walker. Were you ever concerned that your show might not make it?

HOWARD We slipped a lot in our second season, and the decision was made to move to a three-camera show in front of an audience. I had never done that. It terrified me, but it turned out to be an exciting experience. The other idea was to move the Fonzie character front and center. It was kind of a reckoning for me because the focus of the show shifted, and yet that was our way to win. The only thing I ever said to the bosses or the executives is, “What’s happened here with Fonzie is great. Just make sure that you understand, too, that we have a real chemistry here, and we think of ourselves as an ensemble.” I’m glad that they made the moves they made, whether I was 100 percent comfortable with them at the time or not. It was thrilling to see the show take off.

WINKLER They came to me at ABC and they wanted to change the title to “Fonzie’s Happy Days.” I said, “If you do that, it is an insult to everybody I’m working with. Why fix something that isn’t broken? We are really good. I live in the family and that’s why I’m successful. I’m asking you, if you never listen to me again, leave it alone.”

Ron, is it true that had they done that, you would have left the show?

HOWARD I told them I would leave. I don’t think I contractually could have. But I told them if you really want to change the name of the show to that, I would rather go back to USC and film school and what I was doing before the show launched.

How do you look back on the experience now?

WINKLER I thank God I was part of this ensemble. It is a gift from heaven that fell in my lap.

DONNY MOST I used to stay [on the set] and people would say, “You’re done, you can go home.” Because we were one-camera then. I wouldn’t go. Marion and Tom [Bosley], I’d be watching them in the kitchen scene and watch Henry in his scenes. I wanted to stay and absorb it all.

Donny, how did it shape of the rest of your life and career?

MOST I met my wife on the show my last season. She was an actress and we’re married 42 years. People say, “What do you remember most about the show? Which episode? Which scenes?” What I remember are the conversations we had in between shooting or before a show.

I heard the four of you guys are on a text chain.

HOWARD Yeah, it really kicked off in Covid. We’ve always stayed in touch — gotten together, had a meal, emails and so forth.

Is it rare for co-stars in a TV show to remain close for decades?

WINKLER I always thought if you work with somebody for six months, you make a movie, you’re going to have dinner with them when it’s over. Then you call them, and you’re still waiting for them to call you back. That didn’t happen with our show. Anson is an entrepreneur, has created products. Marion has gone on to act and do plays. Ron is a billion-dollar director. Don Most has a combo and travels the country as a crooner.

WILLIAMS And a great crooner.

It has to be at least partly because of the time of life when you got to know each other, right? If you had met in your 30s or 40s, it might not have happened that way.

MOST I remember Ron comparing us to army guys who had been in the trenches together.

HOWARD We were transforming together. We were growing up. Tom Bosley was teaching us how to get life insurance, homeownership loans. We had our first children and marriages.

At the peak of the show’s popularity in the late 1970s, the Fonz was one of the most popular characters in the world. Wasn’t there some moment at a Dallas mall when the scale of it became clear?

WINKLER There were 25,000 people. Don kept saying, “How are we going to get out of here? What happens if they all start moving forward?” For the first time, I used the character off the show. I looked at the crowd and said, [in the Fonz voice] “All right, listen up, you’re going to part like the Red Sea.” They honestly did. We got into the limousine and were able to take off.

Henry, how did you deal with the popularity and when it was over?

WINKLER I wrote about it in my memoir. I think there is an emotional component to dyslexia. For me, anyway. When everybody was talking to me, I knew it was practically good to keep the show going and we’re all making a living, but I couldn’t believe they were talking to me. My sense of self was so damaged from when I was younger. When the show was over, I sat in my office at Paramount and I had psychic pain. Because I had just lived Plan A. I didn’t have a Plan B. I didn’t even think about a Plan B. I’m sitting there not being able to be hired.

As the rest of you saw Henry getting so big and taking over the show, did it ever make you jealous?

WILLIAMS People ask me that question and I’d say, “Are you kidding? The Fonz bought me a house.” He was probably the most popular actor in the world for a while but it never came to the set. As popular as he was, it didn’t change anything as a team. That’s a big deal.

HOWARD You couldn’t be jealous of it because it was 1,000 percent earned. Here’s this guy who created this character, a guy we all immediately loved working with and were inspired by, and audiences dug it. Anything other than maximizing that character wouldn’t have made sense.

Ron, what did you see on the show that helped you become a better director?

HOWARD [The director] Jerry Paris. Brilliant at staging us, and when you’re doing a three-camera show in front of an audience, it is all about character movement and staging. He knew I wanted to direct and so it was a tutorial.

MOST You cannot underestimate the contributions Jerry made to our show. He directed most of the episodes and was in there day in and day out. He was a genius at what he did.

At the center of the show was the relationship between Richie and Fonzie, the strait-laced kid and the guy with the jacket. How did that develop?

WINKLER We were brothers on the set. I could go somewhere, in my imagination — in the middle of a show — Ron would go with me like we were attached by a thread. It was unspoken.

HOWARD I grew up on “The Andy Griffith Show” and used to see Andy playing the straight man role, whether it was with the Barney Fife character, Don Knotts, or with Frances Bavier [Aunt Bee]. I witnessed somebody who took a lot of pleasure and joy out of riding along with people who were going to get the laughs but needed it to be a partnership. I intuitively built upon that experience.

WINKLER Ron, you were an unbelievable partner.

HOWARD It was a blast.

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