“What can I say?” Howard said in the show’s final moments. “Both of our children are married now and they’re starting out to build lives of their own ... we’ve had the joy of raising two wonderful kids and watching them and their friends grow up into loving adults.”
For viewers who had been with the show since its first season in 1974, the comment was odd. Howard and wife Marion (Marion Ross) had three children, not two. The oldest was Chuck Cunningham, who appeared in several episodes in the first and second seasons before abruptly disappearing and then never being seen or mentioned again. Even to his own fictional family, it was as though poor Chuck had never existed.
When the pilot for creator/producer Garry Marshall’s Happy Days met with a cool reception at ABC, the network decided to use it as an installment on the anthology series Love, American Style in 1972 rather than order it to series. Then George Lucas’s American Graffiti—another ‘50s period project starring Ron Howard—became a massive hit the following year, and ABC realized they had a small-screen version of it virtually ready to go. Bolstered by the following that developed around Henry Winkler’s Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, the series exploded in popularity and ran for 11 seasons.
In the pilot, Chuck Cunningham was portrayed by an actor named Ric Carrott, but when the show went into production, many of the roles were recast. (For example, the original Howard Cunningham, Harold Gould, had a theater commitment, and was replaced by Tom Bosley.) The part of Chuck went to Gavan O’Herlihy, who was born in Dublin in 1951 and spent time in both California and Ireland growing up. (His father, actor Dan O'Herlihy, was a veteran actor who appeared in Halloween III: Season of the Witch as Conal Cochran.) Chuck was Richie’s big brother, a basketball standout who was preparing to head off for college. Freckled and with a shock of red hair, the 20-something O’Herlihy looked like he had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
At first, O’Herlihy was ecstatic to get the part. “That was my big break,” he said later. “That got me established around town as a kid who got hot in a hurry.”
But the reality of the gig soon set in. Happy Days was, at least initially, a showcase for Ron Howard, a spotlight he soon shared with Winkler’s ultra-popular Fonzie. Chuck wasn’t likely going to be given a lot of screen time to grow into a compelling character. “I was going to grunt and bounce a basketball once every couple of weeks for probably three or four years,” O’Herlihy said.
After a handful of episodes in the first and second seasons, O’Herlihy went to talk to producers and explained he wasn’t interested in continuing. They tried to talk him out of leaving. For most actors, a role on a hit sitcom—even a minor one—would seem like a win. But O’Herlihy wasn’t having it. “It wasn't my cup of tea,” he told OnMilwaukee.com of his decision in 2013. “It raised some eyebrows, but I’m glad I did.”
O’Herlihy departed the show in its second season, and was replaced in a handful of appearances by the third Chuck, Randolph Roberts. Then, suddenly and without explanation, Chuck Cunningham simply ceased to be, never to be seen or mentioned in the Cunningham household again.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, reruns weren’t quite as prevalent as they are today. It was not easy to summon up episodes of Happy Days that featured Chuck—and as a result, some viewers were unsure he existed at all.
“We can’t seem to convince our son-in-law that on Happy Days, Richie Cunningham has an older brother named Chuck,” one viewer wrote to a Kansas City Star television columnist in 1979. "He says the older brother only appeared only on a Love, American Style segment. Can you help?”
It was peculiar. All Happy Days creator Garry Marshall had to do was offer a throwaway line about Chuck—that he was in college out of state, that he had enlisted, that he had simply settled elsewhere. But not only was no explanation forthcoming, the Cunninghams eventually spoke as though Chuck was a non-entity.
According to Marshall, that ambiguity was by design—he wanted to provoke viewers. “Everybody asked me, ‘What happened to Chuck on Happy Days?’” he said in 2016. “It soon became obvious, because we heard the audience ... that Fonzie was like the older brother and that was the relationship that was working.
“[The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show], remember that show? ... One night I’m watching and the doorbell rings and [George Burns] comes walking out towards the door and he stops. And he looks in the camera and he said, ‘You know the man playing our boss? He had to leave. This is a different boss.’ ... And he went and he answered the door, [and it was] another actor. Nobody wrote a letter. Nobody said anything. So I just said, ‘Let’s just have Chuck disappear and let’s see how much mail we get.’ We didn’t get much.”
While Fonzie may have largely supplanted Chuck, there was a time when Chuck would have served another purpose—replacing Richie. Ron Howard departed the series after the 1979-1980 season, leaving a fairly large gap to fill. According to The Daily News, ABC was looking to resurrect Chuck, though not with O’Herlihy or Roberts. The network was said to be looking for a fourth Chuck.
One never materialized. Instead, Happy Days introduced another family member, Richie’s cousin Roger, played by Ted McGinley. Eventually, the series was responsible for two cultural trends: jumping the shark (to suffer a massive drop in quality, or rely on outrageous plot points to pull in ratings) and Chuck Cunningham syndrome, where a character disappears without explanation.
O’Herlihy continued on as an actor, appearing in films like Superman III (1983) and Death Wish 3 (1985), and eventually working alongside Howard again when Howard directed 1988’s Willow. O’Herlihy died in 2021 at age 70. The fate of his alter ego, Chuck Cunningham, remains a mystery.