A Happy Days Friendship that Almost Wasn’t

My series, New Year; New Types of Friends, continues with another example of friendships in television. During my research for the series, I came across one that almost wasn’t very happy. In fact, the relationship between Ron Howard and Henry Winkler almost never materialized. This TV sitcom Happy Days gives us several examples of how egos can impact friendships and the success of others.

About Happy Days

According to Wikipedia, Happy Days is an American television sitcom that first ran on the ABC network from January 15, 1974, to July 19, 1984. It aired a total of 255 half-hour episodes spanning 11 seasons. Created by Garry Marshall, it was one of the most successful series of the 1970s.

The sitcom presented an idealized vision of life in the 1950s and early 1960s Midwestern United States. It starred Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham and Henry Winkler as his friend, Arthur Fonzarelli, better known as “Fonzie” or “The Fonz.” It also featured Tom Bosley and Marion Ross who played Richie’s parents, Howard and Marion Cunningham, along with younger sister Joanie Cunningham (played by Erin Moran).

The series began as an unsold pilot starring Ron Howard, Marion Ross, and Anson Williams that aired on February 25, 1972, as a segment on ABC’s anthology show Love, American Style. Based on the pilot, director George Lucas cast Howard as the lead in his 1973 film American Graffiti, causing ABC to take a renewed interest in the pilot. 

Enter “The Fonz”

The first two seasons of Happy Days focused on the experiences and dilemmas of “innocent teenager” Richie Cunningham, his family, and his high school friends, Potsie Weber (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Donny Most). The show attempted to “honestly depict a wistful look back at adolescence”. That was until the appearance of the suave ladies’ man, Arthur Fonzarelli. “The Fonz” would eventually become Richie’s best friend and the Cunninghams’ over-the-garage tenant. 

After some moderate initial success, the series’ ratings began to fall during its second season, which caused Marshall to retool the show. The new format emphasized broad comedy and spotlighted the previously minor character of Fonzie, a “cool” biker and high school dropout. Fonzie quickly proved to be a favorite of viewers so the writers created more storylines to reflect his growing popularity. Winkler eventually received top billing in the opening credits alongside Howard.  

After these changes, Happy Days became the #1 program on television from 1976–1977. Henry Winkler became a major star and Fonzie was one of the most merchandised characters of the 1970s. The series spawned a number of spin-offs, including Laverne & Shirley (starring Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams that ran for eight seasons), and Mork & Mindy (starring the up & coming comic, Robin Williams, and Pam Dauber that ran four seasons). 

Not So “Happy Days”

The friendships among the cast of Happy Days were forged under demanding conditions and long days on set. But many of the friendships continued well after the show ended in 1984.

According to this article though, there were many circumstances where an oversized ego could have killed the show’s success. Ultimately that could have killed the friendship between Ron Howard and Henry Winkler before it even began.  

Originally based on a different decade

When actor, screenwriter, and filmmaker, Garry Marshall was first approached about making a period-piece sitcom, the idea was it would take place in the flapper era of the 1920s. But Marshall was only interested in a show set in the 1950s of his childhood. He said he knew nothing about the ’20s and would have struggled to write a realistic show about teens without scenes with drugs and alcohol. 

The network initially protested, saying no one wanted to see a show set in the ’50s. That is until American Graffiti became one of the most profitable movies of all time and made the ’50s and ’60s nostalgia all the rage. 

Almost canceled after one season

It’s hard to believe that a show as popular as Happy Days was almost canned after just one season. Originally conceived with Richie Cunningham as its protagonist, the turning point came when the network brass started featuring Fonzie in a larger role. Audiences loved the handsome greaser who summoned cute girls with a snap of his fingers. “Fonzie-mania” led to producers considering changing the show’s name to Fonzie’s Happy Days. 

Ron Howard has spoken about how he felt disrespected by the executives’ affections for Winkler and the detriment of his role. “We were a fantastic ensemble, we all got along great. But slowly but surely, as they started to write for him, and – I mean, it became sort of like Beatlemania for awhile. I mean, we would go out on the road to promote the show. It was just insane, focused on Fonzie, clearly, that was very exciting. Except for the executives, studio heads, network heads, they started really treating me with a lot of disrespect. From a business standpoint, just in terms of interaction.”  

Looking back. Howard said the experience was a big learning lesson for him. “We immediately bonded and became great friends,” Howard said of Winkler, the godfather to each of Howard’s children.  

Had Ron Howard not put his ego aside, he and Henry Winkler might never have become good friends. 

Nobody liked the original name

When Happy Days was first being written, the show’s working title was simply, “COOL.” Garry Marshall thought that the name accurately described the characters and was in favor of it until focus groups changed his mind. Test audiences reported that the name reminded them of the Kool cigarette brand and 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. 

Had Marshall’s ego not relented about the show’s name, Howard and Winkler may never have become friends. 

Ron Howard dodged the draft 

During the casting for Happy Days, the Vietnam War was in full swing. Ron Howard was enrolled at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he studied to be a film director. Saddled with a frighteningly low draft number, he was almost guaranteed to serve where the fighting was not going well. He decided to leave school and audition for the part of Richie Cunningham. He figured a big studio like Paramount would have the legal resources to keep their star from being shipped out. His plan worked, and the draft ended in 1973 — one year before Happy Days premiered.   

Fonzie was almost a Monkey

Henry Winkler’s portrayal of Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli almost didn’t happen. Originally, Mickey Dolenz, drummer for The Monkees was chosen to play The Fonz. Garry Marshall had seen Dolenz’ performance as a biker in another film and liked his acting, but at 6 feet tall, he towered over the other actors. For shooting reasons, the show’s creators searched for a shorter actor with the 5-foot-6 Winkler getting the role. 

Henry Winkler couldn’t read his lines

Henry Winkler’s first audition was anything but flawless. His lifelong struggle with dyslexia meant that script reading was a particular challenge. To save face, he ad-libbed his way through the audition. He impressed the casting director to give him a minor featured role. Winkler eventually overcame his struggles with reading and writing by co-authoring a popular children’s book series about a dyslexic young boy named Hank Zipzer which has 19 volumes and counting.

He also feared motorcycles

The Fonz was constantly shown riding his beloved 1949 Triumph motorcycle with the confidence of an experienced motorist. But motorcycles actually terrified Winkler. His severe dyslexia reportedly made it difficult for him to operate the controls. So in the scenes where the bike needed to appear “in motion,” crew members would drive the bike into place on a platform and attach it to the back of a truck. Winkler would simply sit and act like he was riding while the truck pulled him along. 

It doesn’t appear that Winkler let his success fuel his ego. He overcame his lack of height, dyslexia, and fear of motorcycles, to do even better things in his later life.

Egos Impact More than Friendships

While some involved in the popular sitcom could put their egos aside, others did not.

Some 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, which included 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 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 in which each actor received a check for $65,000 plus the royalties as specified in their original contracts. 

Joanie’s unhappy days 

Not all the spin-offs of Happy Days were successful. Joanie Loves Chachi, starring Erin Moran as Joanie Cunningham, Richie’s nosy kid sister, and Scott Baio. The show lasted only two seasons after starting out with fairly strong ratings.

Sadly, Moran’s life took a dark turn after the show was canceled. She didn’t land many significant acting jobs and publicly addressed her struggles with depression in 1988. In 2012, Moran was reportedly evicted from the trailer park home she shared with her husband and mother-in-law for her “hard partying.”

In 2017, Erin Moran was found dead in her home at just 56 years old, due to complications from aggressive throat cancer.

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GodBuddy Focus

While some believe having a cool friend (like Arthur Fonzarell) is one of the archetypes of friendships every man needs. This may be true for some but egos can impact friendships.

As my post Introduction to Examples of Real-life Friendships suggests, the GodBuddy is probably the type most men need most. It embodies many Traits of a GodBuddy Relationship that deepen a friendship, especially when you trust enough to give permission to call you out when your ego gets in the way. That’s why some refer to the ego as “Edging God Out.”  

My next post is an example that shows how most work friendships are friendships of convenience. 

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