‘Happy Days’: Hidden behind-the-scenes secrets
‘Happy Days’ was more than just a sitcom, it was a cultural phenomenon! From the ’70s through ’80s, almost everyone was eagerly watching the daily life and adventures of the Cunningham family, reminiscing about the good old days, and trying their hardest to be as cool as The Fonz.
There’s more to the beloved show than meets the eye, though. Read on to test your knowledge; even superfans might not know some of the secrets we’ve dug up!
It was almost canceled after one season
It’s hard to believe that a show as historic as Happy Days was almost canned after just one season but, at the end of its first season, it was dangerously close to being pulled from the air due to low ratings. They struggled to find an audience, and competing shows in the same time slot were performing much better.
The turning point came when they start featuring Henry Winkler’s character, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, in a larger role. Audiences loved the handsome greaser with the power to fix things with the bang of his fist and summon cute girls with a snap of his fingers.
He became so essential that producers considered changing the name of the show to Fonzie’s Happy Days. This wasn’t the show’s only alternative title, however.
Nobody liked the show’s original name
When Happy Days was first being written, the show’s working title was simply, “COOL.” That’s right, all caps. Garry Marshall, the show’s creator, thought that it accurately described the characters and was in favor of the name until focus groups changed his mind.
When test audiences were asked about the name, many reported that it brought associations of the Kool cigarette brand and made them think the show was somehow about smoking. A producer finally suggested the name Happy Days, saying that it was exactly what they intended to depict. The name stuck, eventually inspiring the refrain of the catchy theme we know and love.
The show was originally supposed to be a different decade
When Garry Marshall was first approached about making a period-piece sitcom, the idea was that the show would take place in the flapper era of the 1920s. Marshall responded that he was interested in the idea, but only if the show was set in the 1950s of his childhood.
Marshall said he knew nothing about the ’20s and would have struggled to write a realistic show about teens in that time without scenes with drugs and alcohol. The network initially protested, saying no one wanted to see a show set in the ’50s until the 1973 film American Graffiti became one of the most profitable movies of all time, and suddenly ’50s and ’60s nostalgia was all the rage.
If you paid close attention in the first season, you may have found yourself asking, “Whatever happened to Chuck Cunningham?” The eldest Cunningham child appeared sporadically in the first two seasons, but usually just passing through on his way to basketball practice. The unremarkable brother never really appealed to audiences and was abruptly dropped with no explanation.
It was so peculiar that the phenomenon of a character’s unexplained disappearance came to be known as “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.” Fans didn’t seem to mind too much, though, as The Fonz easily fulfilled the “big brother” archetype Chuck’s character was meant to portray. By the end of the series, Howard Cunningham only refers to his “two kids,” with no mention of the poor forgotten Chuck. Ouch!
Pat Morita had to fake an accent
Trailblazing Japanese-American actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita landed one of his first major roles when he was cast as Arnold (Matsuo Takahashi), the owner of the drive-in restaurant where the main characters hung out. Though the California born Morita spoke perfect English, director Jerry Paris asked him to play the character with a stereotypical Asian accent.
Ever the professional, Pat agreed, adopting a heavily dramatized Chinese pidgin accent (similar to the one he later used in the Karate Kid movies).
Ironically, he almost lost the part when standards and practices officials claimed that his portrayal was politically incorrect, because the accent was Chinese and Morita was Japanese. The actor quickly improvised by saying that Matsuo/Arnold was the child of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, allowing him to stay on.
‘The Fonz’ was almost ‘The Mash’
In creating the fictional world of Happy Days, Garry Marshall took a lot of inspiration from his own life, using names of streets and people he knew while growing up. Chachi’s last name came from Arcola street where Marshall lived as a child, and Potsie and Richie were names of Marshall and his wife’s childhood friends.
He wanted to give the streetwise biker character an Italian last name, proposing Mascarelli, which was his own family’s real name before they changed it to sound “more American.” Marshall quickly realized that the nickname might cause some confusion with a popular rival show, M*A*S*H, and settled on Arthur Fonzarelli, and a legend was officially born. Thank goodness!
Richie Cunningham was a draft dodger
At the time Happy Days was being cast, actor Ron Howard had just turned 18 and the Vietnam War was in full swing. According to the former child star, he was saddled with a frighteningly low draft number and was almost guaranteed to be called on to serve overseas, where the fighting was not going well for U.S. troops.
Before playing clean-cut teen Richie Cunningham, Howard was enrolled at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, studying to be a film director. Figuring that a big studio like Paramount would have the legal resources to keep their star from being shipped out, he decided to leave school to audition and got the part. His plan worked, and the draft ended in 1973 — one year before Happy Days premiered.
Fonzie was supposed to be played by a famous musician
Henry Winkler’s portrayal of the tough yet charming Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli has become one of the most iconic performances of all time, and elevated him from an unknown supporting actor to full-blown superstar. It’s hard to imagine anyone else wearing his iconic leather jacket with the same swagger, but it almost happened.
Originally, Mickey Dolenz, drummer for The Monkees, was chosen to play The Fonz. Garry Marshall, the show’s creator, had seen his performance as a biker in another film and liked his acting, but once the other cast members were chosen, a problem arose.
At 6 feet tall, Dolenz towered over the other actors so, for shooting reasons, they searched for a shorter actor. 5-foot-6 Winkler came along. The rest is TV history.
One of the Beatles really loved ‘Happy Days’
Happy Days became so well-known that the show attracted some majorly famous fans, including the illustrious John Lennon! The former Beatle was a big fan of the show, as was his son Julian. Lennon flexed his star power in order to arrange a set visit, and the two got to check out Happy Days behind the scenes and rub elbows with the cast and crew.
The admiration was mutual, as Anson Williams (Potsie) recalled, and Lennon happily signed autographs and took photos with the adoring crowd. It’s surreal to imagine a celebrity like Lennon asking to take a photo with someone as a fan, but even the most famous celebs have favorite shows! His bandmate, Ringo Starr, also loved Happy Days, and reportedly once tried to get a cameo on the show.
Henry Winkler couldn’t read his lines
Though Henry Winkler ultimately made the show such an iconic sitcom, his first audition was anything but flawless. His lifelong struggle with dyslexia meant that reading scripts was a particular challenge. To save face, he ad-libbed his way through the audition.
The improvisation clearly impressed the casting director, because he landed the role. Audiences loved him, too; he played the character so well that he went from a minor featured role to series regular by Season 2.
Winkler eventually overcame his struggles with reading and writing as well — he’s the co-author of a popular children’s book series, following a dyslexic young boy named Hank Zipzer that has 19 volumes and counting!
The Fonz never actually ‘jumped the shark’
The phrase “jumping the shark” has long been used to describe the point in a declining show where they begin to lean on absurd or shocking plot device to avoid losing viewers. Its roots trace back to Happy Days. In Season 5, the core characters visit California and a leather jacket-clad Fonzie faces his greatest fear (sharks) by literally jumping over a shark on water skis.
The bizarre stunt, which seemed incongruous with the show’s typical “day in the life” plot lines, would be remembered as one of the strangest gimmicks ever. However, despite the belief that this moment was “the beginning of the end,” Happy Days successfully ran seven more seasons, only seeing a decline in ratings during its final season.
Fun fact: Though actor Henry Winkler really could water ski, he was not allowed to do the actual jump in the show, because the risk was “too dangerous” for the star.
Robin Williams got his big break thanks to ‘Star Wars’
Comedy legend Robin Williams had his first major breakthrough on Happy Days as Mork, the goofy extraterrestrial who comes to Earth to learn humanity’s customs. Garry Marshall’s son, who was a big fan of Star Wars, suggested the character, wanting a “space man” featured on the show. They initially had trouble casting the kooky role, which several popular comedians turned down.
The magic happened when Marshall’s sister Penny suggested they hire a street performer who had been doing stand-up for tips near the studio. The man producers called in happened to be a young Robin Williams. When brought in to audition, the first thing he did was sit upside down in a chair, headfirst, when asked to have a seat.
The funnyman won the role immediately, and soon became one of the show’s most memorable personalities, earning his own spin-off years later.
Fonzie and his classic…windbreaker?
When you think of The Fonz, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? For a lot of folks, it’s his classic leather jacket, which came to be a universal symbol of coolness. The iconic garment almost never made it to the screen, however. Studio execs felt leather jackets were associated with gangsters and thugs, and wanted a non-threatening tan windbreaker instead.
Garry Marshall hated the alternate jacket, and did his best to convince the execs that leather one was for motorcycle safety. The studio compromised, saying that he could wear the leather jacket in scenes where the motorcycle appeared. Marshall eagerly agreed and, from that point on, Fonzie’s bike was written into nearly every scene (until the studio finally relaxed their rules, that is).
Fonzie saved a life
A scary moment happened on set when Paramount Studios received an urgent call from a very distressed young fan of the show. The teenage boy, an aspiring actor, was extremely depressed and had reached the point of considering suicide. The only thing he wanted was to talk to his favorite actor, Henry Winkler.
Winkler agreed to speak to the boy and, after a long conversation, talked him out of his melancholy state. He later said in an interview about the tense event that although he was terrified to pick up the phone, he tried to channel some of Fonzie’s unflappable confidence in order to keep a cool head. Thank goodness it worked.
Some of the actors sued Paramount
In 2011, several cast members filed a joint lawsuit against Paramount, citing that they were grossly underpaid on merchandising revenue from the show. The group — actors Erin Moran, Anson Williams, Don Most, Marion Ross, and the estate of Tom Bosley — sought up to $10 million in owed expenses for the use of their likenesses on show-related products.
Notably absent from the proceedings were Ron Howard and Henry Winkler. Though CBS initially attempted to have the case thrown out, they eventually came to a settlement out of court. Each actor involved in the suit ended received a check for $65,000 with the added caveat that they would continue to receive royalties as specified in their original contracts.
Where did Pinky go?
By the time the show reached its fourth season, writers decided that it was time for Fonzie to have a romantic story arc. They came up with Carol “Pinky” Tuscadero, a tough, sassy demolition derby driver to be The Fonz’s female counterpart. Former celebrity photographer Roz Kelly was chosen to play the much-anticipated role.
Her special 3-episode introduction was heavily promoted, and fans loved her right away. Unfortunately, there was one major issue: Kelly did not get along with the cast. When it became clear that things weren’t working, her part was written out of the show completely.
Things went downhill from there for the actress — she later spent time in jail for numerous crimes, including firing a shotgun into her neighbor’s house window!
Joanie’s unhappy days
Joanie Cunningham was the typical nosy kid sister to main character Richie, always causing mischief for her older brother and his friends. Fans loved her, and she even starred in a spin-off series called Joanie loves Chachi with costar Scott Baio. After the show was canceled, however, her life took a dark turn.
Moran didn’t and many significant acting jobs after the show ended. In 1988, she publicly addressed her struggles with depression. In 2012, she was reportedly evicted from the trailer park home she was sharing with her husband and mother-in-law for her “hard partying.”
Sadly, she was found dead in her home in 2017 at just 56 years old. It was determined to be due to complications from the aggressive throat cancer.
They found a creative way to use hit songs
Many of the show’s scenes took place in Arnold’s drive-in diner, where the Happy Days gang would sip sodas, eat burgers, and dance to the familiar ’50s tunes on the jukebox. Famous songs come at a high price, however, and costs for music licensing started to add up.
To save some money while remaining faithful to the spirit of the era, the production team came up with a genius workaround. Potsie actor Anson Williams was a talented singer, so they had him re-record versions of songs they wanted to use on the show. Those royalty-free versions played on the jukebox at Arnold’s. Pretty clever!
Henry Winkler never actually rode a motorcycle
Henry Winkler was constantly shown riding his beloved 1949 Triumph motorcycle with the confidence of an experienced motorist. It turns out, he was actually terrified of motorcycles. His severe dyslexia reportedly made it difficult for him to operate the controls, and he was afraid he might make a big mistake.
In fact, he never even rode the bike on camera! In the scenes where the bike needed to appear “in motion,” crew members would drive the bike into place on a platform. It would then be attached to the back of a truck, and Winkler would simply sit and act like he was riding while the truck pulled him along. It may not have been perfect, but eyyyy, it worked!
Spin-offs of spin-offs
Not only was Happy Days one of the biggest shows on television, but it also spawned an impressive number of spin-offs! The most successful descendants were Laverne & Shirley (eight seasons) and Mork & Mindy (four seasons). Joanie Loves Chachi only lasted two seasons, but it started out fairly strong with high ratings in the first season.
Other lesser-known shows that originated on Happy Days include Blansky’s Beauties, Out of the Blue, and the animated Fonzie and the Happy Days Gang. The Ralph and Potsie Show and The Pinky Tuscadero Show were pitched as pilot episodes but fizzled before hitting airing. Amazingly, Happy Days outlived all of its spinoffs with a formidable 11-season run.
The cast played a sport together
The cast of Happy Days didn’t just spend their days on set together; they also got together off-screen to let off some steam by playing softball! Garry Marshall wanted the whole cast to play a sport together, because he thought it promoted a sense of camaraderie, and he loved softball.
The Happy Days team didn’t just play for fun, though. They raised money for charity with their games, even traveling as far as Japan and Germany to play. Occasionally, they would go on before major league teams took the field, playing in some of the most famous stadiums in the world, including Wrigley Field and Candlestick Park.
Robby Benson purposely bombed his audition
Though he won the role in the end, acting prodigy Ron Howard wasn’t the network’s first choice to play the wholesome Richie Cunningham. They first wanted to cast teen idol Robby Benson, who was also considered around the same time for the role of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise.
Garry Marshall didn’t want Benson to play Richie, and Robby himself wasn’t too keen on the idea, either. Together, they hatched a plan that Robby would purposely flub his lines and blow the audition. It worked perfectly; eventually, Ron Howard got the part, and his innocent, all-American characterization helped make the show the classic it is today.
A family affair
Garry Marshall didn’t just use names and places from his childhood when creating Happy Days; he also cast his friends and family members in the show. The most obvious case would be when he chose his sister, Penny Marshall, to play Laverne De Fazio, who would go on to become one of the stars of Laverne and Shirley.
Penny would continue on to have an illustrious career of her own, both directing and acting in major motion picture projects like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, A League of Their Own, and Big. Penny liked to use her brother’s talents, too: she cast him in several of the films she worked on. Her nephew, Garry’s son Scott Marshall, also made an appearance on Happy Days as a supporting actor.
‘Happy Days’ inspired this movie…not the other way around
At a certain point in the ’70s, audiences started to reminisce about the so-called “good old days” of their childhoods and the ’50s became a wildly popular backdrop for movies, TV shows, and advertisements. One of the most popular films was the George Lucas-directed comedy, American Graffiti.
People naturally assumed that Happy Days, which first aired a year after the movie came out, was somehow based on the film, especially since Ron Howard starred as a main character in both. In fact, Lucas had actually seen the Happy Days pilot episode and liked Howard’s performance so much, he decided to cast him.
Let’s do the time warp again
Happy Days made its mark with witty humor and memorable characters, but it didn’t exactly excel at historical accuracy.
For example, cars shown on-screen were often from the early ‘70s, a Beach Boys song is heard in an episode set two years before it was released, and Howard Cunningham can be seen sporting a digital watch, which wouldn’t come out until years after the show’s supposed timeline.
Another flub occurs when Richie is shown with a 50-star American flag, which wouldn’t have existed until 1960. The characters also seem to be able to time travel. Crossover characters appeared in both Happy Days (set in the 1950s/60s) and the spin-off series Blansky’s Beauties (set in the 1970s) with no mention made about the years passed in between.
The show starred a legendary rocker
Many of the actors on the show also boasted some serious singing chops, including Anson Williams and Donny Most, who had musical careers outside of their acting work. There are also plenty of on-screen musicians, including Joanie and Chachi’s musical duo and Leather Tuscadero’s rock band The Suedes.
The actress who played Leather, Suzi Quatro, was also a rock star in real life! She had a No. 4 hit on the US billboard charts with her song “Stumblin’ In” and is considerd one of the best female bassists in music history. After her stint on the show, Quatro continued to make music; she was even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Rock on, Suzi!
Henry Winkler almost played Danny Zuko
Due to the success of productions like American Graffiti and Happy Days, ’50s nostalgia was at an all-time high in the late 1970s. Because the public seemed to be longing for the “good old days,” a popular musical set in the same era called Grease was proposed to be adapted into a feature film.
Henry Winkler was considered when casting the male lead, a slick, handsome greaser named Danny Zuko. Based on his strong performance as Arthur Fonzarelli, producers thought he would be a perfect fit.
When offered the part, Winkler turned it down, fearing he would be typecast as a greaser for his entire career. Next on the list was an up-and-comer named John Travolta. We’d say it worked out okay.
Cast members ‘reunited’ on a more modern show
References from Happy Days can be seen all over pop culture, even more than 30 years later. The cast even got back together a few times in different shows, like the time Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Scott Baio all appeared on Arrested Development, a hilarious meta-comedy about money, showbiz, and family.
One of the best parts is a cheeky line by Scott Baio’s lawyer character (Bob Loblaw), who is brought on to replace Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler), saying, “Look, this is not the first time I’ve been brought in to replace Barry Zuckerkorn…Plus, I skew younger. With juries and so forth.”
Barry also literally jumps over a shark and strikes the classic “no comb needed” Fonzie pose in the mirror.
The original opening song was re-recorded especially for ‘Happy Days’
Before the show used the recognizable Happy Days theme performed by Pratt & McClain, the poppy, energetic song “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets introduced the show. It fit perfectly with the 1950s theme and conjured mental images of sock hops and poodle skirts with its big band rockabilly sound.
The Haley version was a huge hit when first released in 1954, topping the charts in both the U.S and U.K. It experienced a resurgence in popularity 20 years later when featured in American Graffiti. Due to its renewed popularity, they re-recorded the song specifically for Happy Days, and that version was used until Season 3, when it was replaced by the tune we’re all accustomed to.
The Fonz had his own video game…sort of
Due to the show’s record-breaking popularity, manufacturers wasted no time branding and merchandising anything they could get their hands on. Lunchboxes, action figures, cups, trading cards, and more all got a photo of The Fonz and a price tag slapped on them, and they sold like hotcakes.
One of the more obvious cash grabs was Sega’s 1976 Fonz racing game. It was essentially a re-branded version of an older game, Moto-Cross, that just happened to have images of Fonzie on the cabinet. Nothing in the game was directly related to Happy Days — it just featured motorcycle racing, and Sega capitalized on a golden opportunity.
This article was originally published on History 101: ‘Happy Days’: Hidden behind-the-scenes secrets