Happy Days originated in 1974 as a nostalgic teen-populated situation comedy centered on the life of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his best friend Potsie (Anson Williams), both students at Jefferson High School in 1950's Milwaukee Wisconsin. The character, of Arthur Fonzarelli, Fonzie, with whom the show is now most associated was originally only fifth-billed. But his leather jacketed, "great with the girls," biker profile unexpectedly captured the imagination of viewers. Fonzie increased the popularity of the show and actor, who portrayed him, Henry Winkler, and by 1980, "the Fonz" had achieved top billing.
The show presented a saccharine perspective on American youth culture of the 1950s. With rock and roll confined to the jukebox of Al's Diner, the kids worried over first loves, homecoming parades, and the occasional innocuous rumble. The Cunninghams represented the middle class family values of the era. Minor skirmishes erupted between parents and children, but dinner together was never missed--prepared and served by mother, Marion (Marion Ross), or daughter, Joanie (Erin Moran). There was no inkling of the "generation gap" discourse which was beginning to differentiate youth from their parents in the 1950s, and which was still active in the mid-1970s when the show was created.
One episode pits Ritchie and his friends against Ritchie's father, Howard (Tom Bosley), by virtue of his support of a business plan that would send a freeway through the teen make-out spot, Inspiration Point. Civil disobedience is suggested by the teenagers' organization of petitions and picket signs to protest the plan. Fonzie even chains himself to a tree at the site. Yet generational harmony is restored when Ritchie makes Howard realize that he, too, participated in the culture of Inspiration Point when he was young.
Fonzie's lower class status, his black leather clothes, and motorcycle, propensity to get into fights, and apparent sexual exploits with multiple women takes advantage of the code of delinquency which social scientists of the period fashioned under the rubric of deviancy studies. But again, Fonzie's representation had none of the hard edge or angst of a James Dean or Marlon Brandon character and was played more for laughs than social critique. Yet his popularity on the show may have tapped into deeper audience identifications.
His image of an impervious, highly testosteroned male, albeit with modicums of vulnerability and hyperbole as acted by Winkler, was overtly rewarded in the show. It only took a snap of his fingers to have women do his bidding or grown men cower in fear of being pummeled by an out-of-control Fonzarelli. So male-identified was his character that the men's restroom in Al's Diner was referred to as his "office."
The Fonz's courting of many women at once meant be was never subject to the kind of romantic involvement and inevitable heartbreak which characterized Ritchie's relationships with women. The Fonz's style, "my way" bravado, working class ethos, and loner sensibility differed from the mainstream Cunninghams and was in direct opposition to the upwardly mobile, college-bound, leadership-quality Ritchie. Ritchie, audiences knew, would someday outgrowth Milwaukee and leave it behind, but Fonzie had fewer choices, and was the type to stay behind. And perhaps the tension between these two worlds, these two life directions kept audiences watching through the show's ten year run during which time Ritchie and his pals go to college, the army, and even get married.
Despite these contrasts, however, Fonzie and the Cunningham family were never involved in overt conflict. Indeed, by the end of the show, Fonzie had moved into the Cunningham's garage apartment, and though the bemused Howard Cunningham often wondered what was happening "up there," Fonzie was, by this time, a thoroughly domesticated character. His role not only paralleled that of Mr. Cunningham, but those of countless sitcom fathers before him, and he was as likely to dispense careful, family-oriented wisdom, as to suggest rebellion of the slightest sort. But it was always proffered with Winkler's parody-delinquent sense of style, a style that continues to appeal to youngsters in syndicated rerun throughout the world.
Happy Days stands as the first of a string of extremely successful spinoff comedies from producer Garry Marshall. Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and others shows helped propel the ABC television network into first place in the ratings battles, and enabled Marshall to move from television to feature film direction.
-Lisa Anne Lewis
Richie Cunningham (1974-80).................. Ron Howard
Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli.................... Henry Winkler
Howard Cunningham ...............................Tom Bosley
Marion Cunningham............................... Marion Ross
Warren "Potsie" Webber (1974-83).... Anson Williams
Ralph Malph (1974-80)............................ Donny Most