‘Happy Days’ Stars Expose The On-Set Drama Producers Kept Under Wraps

For almost 10 years, Fonzie and company created television magic. But for all the success that Happy Days enjoyed on the air, there were some other things going on behind the scenes that you weren’t supposed to know about. It seems the Cunningham Family wasn’t so cheery once the cameras stopped rolling.

Naming Disagreements

From the onset, the sitcom was filled with disagreements. Happy Days almost had a different name: Cool. While that describes Fonzie pretty well, it doesn’t exactly capture the vibe of the show. Producers also considered another alternative title, too…

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All About Fonzie

Once producers knew that Fonzie was going to be an iconic character, they wanted to ride his popularity. At one point, they even considered calling the show Fonzie’s Happy Days; the rest of the cast was probably glad they decided against it, though.

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A Different Setting

Happy Days is firmly set in the 1950s, complete with jukeboxes, motorcycles, and leather jackets, but the characters almost lived in a different decade. The original plan was to set the show in the 1920s or ’30s, but creator Garry Marshall chose the era he grew up in.

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Milwaukee, California

And speaking of the setting, the real Cunningham house is actually in California, not Wisconsin. Producer Tom Miller actually pitched the idea of setting the show in his hometown of Milwaukee. He thought a Midwestern city would help a larger portion of America relate to the show. Safe to say his idea worked.

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The Other Mr. Cunningham

The original pilot episode featured several notable differences from the beloved Happy Days we all know. Most notably, Mr. Cunningham was played by Howard Gould; he was unable to make a long-term commitment, so Tom Bosley took over the character instead.

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Thanks, ‘American Graffiti’

But after viewing the pilot episode, ABC decided to pass on the series. The success of American Graffiti, however, inspired them to revisit the pilot and give Happy Days a shot. Weirdly, there’s another connection between the show and the George Lucas film.

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Ron Howard’s Casting

Most people assume the movie inspired Happy Days, but it’s actually the other way around. Lucas saw Ron Howard’s performance in the series pilot and then decided to cast him as Steve Bolander. He was only on Happy Days due to a lucky coincidence, though.

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Sabotaging Robbie Benson

Because in actuality, the original plan was for Robbie Benson to play Richie, but he wasn’t keen on the role. Series creator Garry Marshall also thought someone else would be a better fit, so the two conspired for Benson to throw his audition.

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Avoiding the War

Meanwhile, Ron Howard was interested in becoming a director, but he accepted the role for one major reason: immediate employment meant he could avoid being drafted and shipped out to join the Vietnam War. While he was happy to be on the show, other folks cast weren’t as easy to work with.

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Writing Out Pinky

Remember Pinky Tuscadaro? She was supposed to be Fonzie’s love interest but, in reality, actress Roz Kelly didn’t get along with most of the cast, including Henry Winkler himself. She was quickly written out of the series, just like another character…

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The Forgotten Cunningham

In the first two seasons, Richie and Joanie had an older brother, but he slowly disappeared over time. That was caused by two factors that you might not have expected…

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Move Over, Chuck

First, audiences simply never cared about Chuck. But, perhaps more crucially, Fonzie had inherited the “older brother” role on the show; popularity-wise, no one can compete with The Fonz! He could have been a very different character, though.

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No Monkee-ing Around

Micky Dolenz, who would go on to be cast in The Monkees, nearly played Fonzie. His auditions went well, but Dolenz was too tall for the role, leaving it for Winkler. Still, the studios almost spoiled everything.

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Dangerous Leather

Fonzie is nothing without his leather jacket, right? Well he almost didn’t get to wear it on the show. ABC felt leather jackets had a gang connotation and wanted him to wear a different coat instead.

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Breaking Wind

If the network got their wish, he’d have worn a pale windbreaker. Not exactly the height of coolness. Thankfully, Marshall convinced ABC that wearing a leather jacket was simply a safe way to ride a motorcycle, and they relented.

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Turning Down ‘Grease’

Winkler’s eventual portrayal of Fonzie was so iconic that he was approached to play Danny Zuko in Grease. He turned down the offer, however, for one major reason: he isn’t a good singer.

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Winkler’s Struggle

Also, Winkler is dyslexic, which made table reads and learning his lines challenging. He managed to turn that disability into an advantage, using humor and improvisation to cover up for mistakes. That made Fonzie a real, living character rather than a dry performance.

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Man Behind the Jukebox

Remember the jukebox that Fonzie would bang on at Arnold’s? It only played covers sung by an unexpected vocalist: Anson Williams. He played Potsy, the show’s nerdy but talented musician and was actually a skilled singer in real life.

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Jump the Shark

You’ve probably heard of the phrase “jump the shark,” meaning a series has started to decline in quality, but did you know the term came from Happy Days? In one of the show’s later episodes Fonzie, leather jacket and all, went water-skiing and jumped over a shark.

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Pat Morita’s Famous Accent

Pat Morita was born in California and spoke perfect English, so he created an accent for his role as Arnold. He would later make famous use of that voice as Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid.

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Spin-Offs on Spin-Offs

Happy Days inspired plenty of spin-offs, but did you know there was a brief animated series? A cartoon Fonzie starred in The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang before appearing in the animated version of Laverne and Shirley.

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Winkler’s Business Smarts

Fonzie might not be renowned for his book smarts, but Winkler made a wise business decision off-screen. He chose to accept a small salary in exchange for a share of the show’s merchandising and syndication profits. Happy Days‘ success ensured his gamble paid off.

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Happy Days League

The cast might have been close on the screen, but they stayed together outside the studio, too. They formed a softball team, playing against other teams for charity and visiting military bases around the country.

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Fonzie and Mrs. Cunningham

On the show, Fonzie and Mrs. Cunningham had a special relationship; she was, after all, the only one allowed to call him by his real name. In real life, Winkler and Marion Ross also remained close friends. Just goes to show the Fonz is a pretty cool guy, though during the show the actor who played him was in trouble.

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Problems at Home

Though Henry Winkler was flourishing on set, his life wasn’t all that it seemed to be. Because before the world had called him “The Fonz,” he was struggling at home.

“Dumb Dog”

See, his mother and father escaped to America from Germany on the brink of World War II. Their experiences left scars, making them pretty verbally abusive. It can’t be easy for your parents to call you a “dumb dog” all the time!

Serious Consequences

And Henry was faring no better at school. We’d all love for all teachers to be Miss Honeys, but in reality, you get a few Dolores Umbridges tossed in there. When Henry did poorly in school, his parents punished him at home.

Undiagnosed Dyslexia

Making life harder, Henry suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia, but because the condition wasn’t well understood in the 1950s, Henry’s teachers were not supportive of his struggle and let him believe he was, in fact, a “dumb dog.”

Off to College

But Henry wouldn’t give up without a fight and pressed on through his dyslexia. By the end of high school, he was graduating (almost) on time and was even accepted to Emerson College. And he didn’t stop there.

Thespian Dreams

By the time he’d graduated from Emerson, Henry knew he wanted to be an actor and applied to the Yale School of Drama. During his audition for the school, he forgot his lines but improvised so well that he was accepted.

Struggling With Scripts

However, after graduating, he knew it was going to be a whole different story. When your whole job is dependent on reading scripts, you’re going to run into an issue from time to time if you can’t read well. Still, he never looked at this as an obstacle. Just a challenge.

Throwing Caution to the Wind

“I never read anything the way that it was written in my entire life,” Henry said. “I could instantly memorize a lot of it, and then what I didn’t know, I made up and threw caution to the wind and did it with conviction, and sometimes, I made them laugh; and sometimes, I got hired.”

Winkler’s Big Break

And he did get hired. By the age of 27, Henry was starring on one of the biggest sitcoms to ever grace the small screen: Happy Days. Henry’s Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli was the definition of “cool” and played off the rest of the show’s middle-of-the-road characters.

Main Character Material

With a couple of key catchphrases under his belt, he quickly became a fan favorite but at first, he hadn’t been pegged as a central protagonist. Once the producers realized how popular and talented he was, they had no choice but to keep him around. Things should have been “fabamundo;” sadly, that wasn’t the case.

Success at a Price

See, after eleven record-breaking seasons, Henry was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But that success was a double-edged sword.

Typecasting

Henry was ready to move on to new roles, but because he was so beloved as Fonzie, producers only ever wanted to cast him as that suaver-than-suave Italian-American. He was being stereotyped. He knew he had only one way out of the problem.

Producing and Directing

With no options left, Henry made the tough decision to quit acting to focus on a career as a producer and director. And lucky for him, he turned out to be immediately successful there too; one of his first projects as a producer was none other than the hit TV show MacGyver. He had other plans, too.

Building a Family

Behind the cameras, Henry focused on other areas of his life, like his family. By 1978, Henry had married Stacey Weitzman and had become a father figure for her son from an earlier marriage, Jed. But his stepson made Henry discover something that would change his life forever.

An Oddly Similar Story

See, Henry realized he was quickly falling into the same patterns as his parents. Jed was struggling in school, and Henry would just encourage him to work harder and put in more effort. What he didn’t know was that their situations were more alike than he thought.

Diagnosing Jed

Henry and Stacey brought Jed to a doctor to be tested and sure enough, Jed had dyslexia. This was huge news — and not just for Jed! “I went, ‘Oh my goodness. I have something with a name,'” remembered Henry. “That was when I first got it.”

Returning to Television

It wasn’t until 2018, more than 30 years later, that Henry decided it was time to get back on TV in a starring role in HBO’s Barry. When it debuted on HBO, no one knew if it would be a hit. A comedy about a hitman who becomes an actor? Sounded crazy!

Earning an Emmy

But once it started raking in award after award, one thing became clear: fans had been anxiously awaiting Henry’s return to the small screen all those years. One of the biggest awards Barry took home? Outstanding Supporting Actor for Henry’s performance, his first primetime Emmy win in 40 years. Hard work pays off.