Happy Days ran for 11 seasons, making it one of ABC’s longest running series. It lasted longer than its many spinoffs, including Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, and was the first series in Nick at Nite history to dethrone I Love Lucy as that channel’s top-rated show.
Nearly 50 years after its premiere, Happy Days still stands among the list of television's most timeless sitcoms.
1. Happy Days was supposed to be set in the 1920s, not the 1950s.
When Garry Marshall was first approached by Paramount executives Michael Eisner and Tom Miller in 1971 to create a new sitcom, they envisioned something set in the 1920s or ’30s. Marshall told them that he knew nothing about flappers, but he could write a show about the era in which he spent his teen and young adult years—the 1950s. He put together a pilot about a Midwestern family that just purchased their first TV set (the first one in the neighborhood!) and how the teenaged son planned to use it as a chick magnet. The series didn’t sell, and the pilot ended up as a vignette on Love, American Style—“the dumping ground of failed pilots” according to Marshall.
2. The show's creator wanted to call it COOL.
Test audiences reported that COOL made them think of cigarettes, however, so producer Carl Kleinschmitt suggested, “How about calling it Happy Days? That’s what we’re going to show.”
3. Ron Howard signed on to avoid going to Vietnam.
Ron Howard wasn’t looking to do another series; he had recently enrolled at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with the goal of becoming a director. He had a small problem nagging at him, however: a low draft number. And Uncle Sam was no longer handing out student deferments to college students. There was a possibility of Howard getting an occupational deferment, though, if his employment was directly related to the employment of 30 or more other people. Luckily Paramount was a large company with enough employees who would be out of work if their star was drafted, so Howard signed on to play Richie Cunningham. Even though the pilot didn’t sell, Howard could breathe easily since President Nixon had ended the draft shortly after filming had wrapped.
4. Happy Days predates American Graffiti.
George Lucas’s Oscar-nominated 1973 film launched a craze for 1950s nostalgia (even though the movie was set in 1962). Casting director Fred Roos had worked with Ron Howard on The Andy Griffith Show and recommended him to Lucas for the role of Steve Bolander. Lucas dug out the “Love and the Happy Days” episode of Love, American Style to determine whether Howard could play an 18-year-old high school student convincingly. Once American Graffiti became a runaway success, ABC decided that the time was ripe for a 1950s-era sitcom and Garry Marshall’s project was resurrected.
5. A Monkee could have played Fonzie.
When Henry Winkler got the callback after his first audition for the role of Arthur Fonzarelli, he was taken aback when he saw that the other contender was former Monkees drummer Micky Dolenz. According to Dolenz, Winkler admitted to him later that he had thought, “Oh crap, Micky Dolenz is here. I’ll never get it!” Dolenz was Marshall’s original choice to play Fonzie, on the strength of a recent guest appearance he had made as a biker on Adam-12. But at six feet tall, Dolenz towered over the five-foot-nine Howard, so Winkler was deemed a better fit.
6. Henry Winkler struggled to read his scripts.
Winkler struggled in school as a child no matter how hard he applied himself. His German-born parents had a nickname for him, dummer hund (“Dumb Dog”), which didn’t help his self-esteem. He wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until he was 31 years old. When he auditioned for Happy Days he only had six lines, which he made up because he couldn’t read them. “That’s not in the script,” the producers pointed out. Thinking on his feet, Winkler replied: “I know but I’m giving you the essence of the character and if I get the part I’ll do it verbatim.”
7. Bill Haley recorded a new version of his signature hit for the opening credits
“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets spent eight weeks at the top of the Billboard chart in 1955. This original single version was only used once on Happy Days (for the first episode). Haley recorded a new version of the song exclusively for the series and this was the song that was played over the opening credits during the first two seasons of the show.
8. Pat Morita had trouble with his accent.
California-born Noriyuki “Pat” Morita spoke plain, unaccented English as well as any native speaker, but just prior to filming his first scene as Arnold, director Jerry Paris very reluctantly told the actor that he had to “pick an accent.” Apparently the network higher-ups thought that the obviously Asian Arnold should speak with a distinct accent. Morita went along with them and used an exaggerated Chinese Pidgin English dialect. About six weeks later Paris approached Morita once again, this time accompanied by a standards and practices representative. The S&P rep informed Morita that—for politically correct reasons—he could no longer play Arnold, who was obviously a Chinese-American character (an observation made based on Morita’s accent), because he was Japanese-American. Morita did some quick thinking and explained that Arnold’s last name was Takahashi, and that he was the product of a Japanese father and Chinese mother.
9. Fonzie didn't really love Pinky.
Happy Days's season 4 opener was a hugely hyped affair, a three-part story arc entitled “Fonzie Loves Pinky.” The big news was that Fonzie was going to find true love, and the object of his affection was a daredevil cyclist named Pinky Tuscadero. Pinky was played by Roz Kelly, an actress who’d caught ABC honcho Fred Silverman’s eye and had become a pet project of his. He believed that she could be the “female Fonzie” and as a result the Pinky and Fonzie pairing got almost as much press coverage in the summer of 1977 as Charles and Diana would receive three years later. Alas, the brassy and abrasive Kelly just didn’t fit in with the rest of the cast, particularly her intended love interest: “I grew up on welfare, so I don’t relate to rich kids,” she told People magazine in 1976 of the Yale-educated Winkler. And Pinky was quietly written out of the series.
10. In 1975, John Lennon paid a visit to the Happy Days set.
The cast was surprised one day in 1975 when the former Beatle showed up unannounced on the Paramount lot. John's son, Julian Lennon, was apparently a huge fan of the show, so his dad had decided to bring him over to meet the cast. As Anson Williams, who played Potsie, recalled, Lennon was very nice and somewhat shy, but he did sign autographs and draw doodles for various crew members and grips. (But not for Williams or the other stars; they were far too cool to ask a fellow celebrity for a keepsake drawing.)
11. Garry Marshall gave Robin Williams his big break.
It was actually Marshall’s sister, Ronny, who “discovered” the comedian. Marshall’s young son was an avid Star Wars fan and he urged his father to have “space people” on Happy Days, which is how the alien character Mork from Ork was conceived. Several comedians, including Dom DeLuise and John Byner, had turned down the role and Marshall was having trouble casting it. His sister suggested a stand-up comic she regularly saw performing on the street, with his hat on the ground for money. “Why should I hire a guy from off the street?” he asked her. “Well, his hat is always pretty full!” Ronny told him. When Williams showed up to tape the “My Favorite Orkan” episode, Winkler reported that his biggest challenge as an actor was to maintain a straight face while Williams went off on his hilarious tangents.
12. Many of the names used on the show were inspired by Garry Marshall's real life.
Marshall’s wife went to school with a kid named Potsie Webber, and Richie Cunningham was a “nice boy” who attended the same church as Marshall. The first home the Marshalls purchased was on Arcola Street. Fonzie’s name, however, was originally supposed to be “Arthur Masciarelli”, which was Marshall’s original surname. However, “the Mash” just didn’t have the same ring to it as “the Fonz.”
13. Henry Winkler didn't jump the shark.
Winkler isn’t particularly athletic, but one of the few sports he excelled at was waterskiing, which is how the famous “jump the shark” episode happened to get written. Winkler did all of his own stunt work in the “Hollywood: Part 3” episode—except for the actual shark jump. The producers didn’t want to take a chance on letting their star do such a risky maneuver. By the way, Winkler wore a special leather jacket with the lining removed for his stint on skis.
14. The cast worked together, and played together.
Garry Marshall came up with the idea of a Happy Days All-Star Softball Team, with both cast and crew members participating. He thought it was a good opportunity for the actors to blow off steam while also promoting the show and raising money for charity. The team often played other celebrity teams prior to MLB games, and they toured military bases in Europe and Japan.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.