Question: Question: My husband and I are having a major debate about the origins of Happy Days. One of us says it was spun off from Love, American Style, and the other says it was based on American Graffiti. Which one is it? There is a lobster dinner riding on the answer to this! Thank you in advance!
Answer: Technically, Amy, neither is exactly right. But for the sake of the bet, whoever stood by the Love, American Style spinoff gets to crack claws for free.
Happy Days began life as a half-hour pilot called New Family in Town. Co-creators Garry Marshall and Tom Miller envisioned it as a Norman Rockwell-esque endeavor and they set it in Milwaukee, where Miller grew up. "It was a very soft, gentle show," Marshall wrote in a 1984 TV Guide article he penned as his series wrapped its 11th season. "The network guys looked at it and they said, 'What a sweet, lovely show. Who needs it? Nobody wants to see the '50s, it's boring."
So ABC used the pilot, which featured eventual Happy Days stars Ron Howard, Marion Ross and Anson Williams together with Harold Gould (Rhoda) in the Howard Cunningham role, as an episode of Love, American Style. Then American Graffiti became a smash movie and Grease met with Broadway success. Turns out people did want to see the '50s, so Marshall and company had themselves a series order.
Now, a lot of people think Graffiti spawned Happy Days because Howard, who played series center Richie Cunningham, starred in that movie. But while having Howard on board certainly must've tilted the suits toward "yea," Howard himself hated when his new series was called a Graffiti rip-off. "American Graffiti is about four kids making a decision," he said in 1974. "Happy Days is about a family."
Well, it was when it started, but a leather-jacketed hood-with-a-heart-of-gold soon hijacked fans' attention and sent the show into the stratosphere. The reason Happy Days became the sensation it was and stayed on as long as it did was Fonzie (Henry Winkler), who was initially conceived as little more than a bit player. In fact, when Marshall asked for a tall Italian actor and Miller brought him Winkler, a 5-foot-6-1/2-inch Jewish kid who went to Yale drama school, Marshall only kept him because he didn't think the role was that crucial. "I said to him, 'Young man, I could see you're an intense actor here,' " Marshall wrote. "'Very smart and you went to school at Yale and you gotta understand: This is a very little part. This is two, four lines a week here. That's it. This guy doesn't speak. So I don't want any trouble from you. I'm telling you up front. I don't wanna hear from your agent, I don't wanna hear from nobody. Don't start up if you want a bigger part, because you're a side character, your job is to float through the goddamned show. OK?"
OK. But CBS programming legend Fred Silverman put the hit Good Times up against Happy Days in an attempt to snuff it out. Marshall's series barely hung in, not earning any big ratings until Silverman came over to ABC. He asked Marshall who Fonzie was supposed to represent and Marshall told him the character was the Lone Ranger. "Well, do more with the Lone Ranger," Silverman said. "Where he does all these great things." Marshall followed orders. The show took off with silver-bullet velocity.
Winkler helped shape the character and some of the Fonz's signature moves. (Asked to comb his hair in the mirror, he ad-libbed the bit where Fonzie decides his 'do is perfect and steps back without touching it. He also based the thumbs-up gesture on, of all things, Roman gladiator battles.) When that caught on, Winkler stuck it out with the show, even though he got so big the network offered him both a Fonzie spin-off and the starring role in a Serpico series.
Of course, Winkler's rising star meant that Howard, who was supposed to be the lead, was overtaken. But Howard had already been in the biz since childhood and was able to adopt the long view. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a feeling about it," he admitted in 1978. "[But] when ABC said let's get Fonzie into every episode, it seemed like a sensible idea. I felt Richie was too central to the action anyway.... The shock came when the press started going crazy. People started calling me up like it had happened to them. 'You're not the star of the show anymore,' they'd say. Well, I felt I had plenty to do and what I was doing was important."
Anyone who's been to the movies in the past 15 years or so doesn't need to be told what his other big activity was. And as for its importance, that wasn't just a stuck-on-himself actor talking. In 2001 the Academy agreed, voting Howard Best Director for his work on A Beautiful Mind. And all the moviegoers who've helped him load his résumé with hits give him a hearty thumbs-up, too.