Back in the 70s, television viewers received a romanticized view of the 50s, thanks to an iconic little 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 then-popular series Love American Style.
That segment, entitled “Love and the Happy Days” might have been the last that viewers ever saw of the Cunningham family, had it not been for the 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 role of the thug, who was given the name “Arthur Fonzarelli,” would go to one of the stars of the 1974 film The Lords of Flatbush. His name was Henry Winkler and he transformed the Fonzie character into a pop culture icon.
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 Arnold’s 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 the 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.
Due to the response, the character was immediately adjusted to seem 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 named 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 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 the 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.)