Back in the 70s, television viewers received a romanticized view of the 50s, thanks to a sitcom called Happy Days, which followed the daily life of the Cunningham family, their friends and a soon-to-be hoodlum hero named Fonzie. It went on to become one of the most popular series of the decade and today, we pay tribute to this iconic sitcom.
Considering the overwhelming success and longevity of Happy Days, it is almost impossible to fathom that ABC initially passed on the show. The pilot, titled “New Family in Town” which focused on a typical suburban middle class family in the 50s was met with a mediocre response from the network who decided instead to use it as filler segment on the series Love American Style.
That segment, entitled “Love and the Happy Day” might have been the last that viewers ever saw of the Cunningham family, had it not been for a little George Lucas film released in 1973 called American Graffiti. The success of the film proved that there was an overwhelming fondness for that earlier era, prior to the Vietnam War and the assassination of Kennedy when the world seemed such a simpler, easier to understand place. And when the public showed an interest, network execs took another look at the Happy Days concept – offering a few suggestions of their own to Marshall. They felt that show needed a thug and that it needed someone like Robbie Benson to star in the role of Richie Cunningham. As fate would have it, Benson wasn’t interested, so they begrudgingly decided to go with American Graffiti star and television veteran, Ron Howard. The thug, who had been given the name Arthur Fonzarelli, would go to one of the stars of the 1974 film The Lords of Flatbush, Henry Winkler.
The original concept called for the show to revolve around Richie and his best friend, Warren “Potsie” Webber, two good kids who attended Jefferson High, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They would spend their time at a diner called Arnolds and do typical wholesome kid stuff. Oh, and that Fonzarelli guy, he would just be a minor recurring role. Yeah, right. Once America got a glimpse of motorcycle riding hoodlum who said things like “Ayyyyyy! and “Sit on it!” his popularity with viewing audiences rose like a thermometer held over an open flame. His character was immediately adjusted to be less menacing and more human, a tough guy who could also be a friend and big brother to Richie. Not that Richie didn’t already have a big brother – unfortunately the basketball-dribbling older sibling Chuck just wasn’t that interesting or popular and he was chucked from the show’s lineup after the first season. And with Fonzie in the picture now, Potsie needed a new sidekick, and so they assigned him the always-jovial, sometimes-manic, Ralph Malph, a character that started out with an edge, but was eventually wimped down quite a bit.
The whole gang spent most of their time at Arnold’s Drive In, a local teen hangout that often featured Richie’s band and, when they weren’t playing, a jukebox that Fonzie had a magical ability to control. Fonzie considered the men’s room at Arnolds to be his own private office and often summoned Richie to a meeting in there. Arnold (played by the future Mr. Miyagi, Pat Morita) would eventually sell Arnold’s to Al Delvecchio (after Morita left to star in his own short-lived show, Mr T. and Tina.)
Besides his colorful friends, Ritchie had a stable home life. His practical father, Howard, ran the local hardware store and freely dispensed sound fatherly advice when necessary – and he didn’t much like that Fonzie character at first. Mom and housewife Marion was a sweet and naïve lady who was a doting mom to her kids and to Arthur as well (yep, she was the only one in the world that get away with calling the Fonz “Arthur”.) And rounding out the family was the ever-annoying kid sister Joannie who just so happened to have a major case of puppy love for Fonzie. She would eventually find her own pint-sized version of the leather-wearing Fonz – his little cousin Chachi Arcola.
Although the entire ensemble cast was wonderful, it was the bond between Richie and the Fonz that created the charm of the show, and often the biggest laughs. While Richie was more than a little envious of the Fonz’s effect on the opposite sex, Fonzie knew that Richie held the most valuable possession, a family that loved him. Luckily, the Cunningham clan would practically adopt the Fonz as one of their own and even give him an apartment above their garage. Ritchie and the Fonz were truly the best of friends.
That relationship came to an abrupt end before the 7th season, in 1980 when Ron Howard (and Donny Most who played Ralph) made the decision to leave the show. Joanie and Chachi followed suit (to star in their own short-lived sitcom, Joanie Loves Chachi. Other major (and ill-conceived) changes included Fonzie becoming a Dean of a vocational high school and the introduction of a new character, Marion’s nephew Roger. At this point in the series, the chemistry had been irreversibly altered, never to recapture the original charm. After 11 seasons and a remarkable 255 episodes, Happy Days would call it quits in 1984. Richie would return for the final episode, having married his longtime girlfriend Lori Beth and present to witness the marriage of his little sister to Chachi.
The show was enormously successful during the majority of its run and, in the process, managed to spawn two hit spin-offs (No, Joanie Loves Chachi wasn’t one of them.) Two local brewery workers, Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney would go on to star in Laverne and Shirley and a very peculiar extraterrestrial named Mork would go on to star in Mork and Mindy (and catapult the career of a relatively unknown comic named Robin Williams to astronomic heights.) At one point in time, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy were the top three shows in the country, pleasing the ABC network to no end.
Never underestimate the power of nostalgia. Happy Days sparked a longing for the simpler times in just about everyone that tuned in. In one way or another, everyone could relate to one of the characters whose chemistry together created one of the most beloved sitcoms to ever air on television. It is unlikely that there will ever be another network show like it – a simple sitcom about the happy days that America longed to return to – again and again and again.
Were you a regular viewer of Happy Days? Was it the first think you discussed with your friends at school each week after watching a new episode? Did you own a Fonzie t-shirt? Share all your memories of this beloved show with us in our comments section as we tip our hats to a 70s show that taught us a little something about life in the 50s, and made us laugh to no end.