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Looking back on 'Happy Days'

In 1974, “Happy Days” put a new twist on the innocent ’50s-era sitcom

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Vietnam, Watergate, rampant drug use, premarital sex — life was complicated in 1974. So when a crew-cuts-and-bobby-socks sitcom called Happy Days debuted on ABC on Jan. 15, critics derided its carefree nostalgia, calling it ”dishonest” and ”feebly re-created.” Who would buy it?

For several years before that, literally no one did. Producer Garry Marshall’s 1971 pilot had languished on Paramount’s shelves, surfacing only as a 1972 Love, American Style segment starring former child actor Ron Howard (The Andy Griffith Show‘s Opie). But the box office success of 1973’s American Graffiti (also starring Howard) stirred ABC to give Happy Days a try; the show would inhabit its Tuesday-at-eight slot for the next nine years.

Happy days indeed: Ignoring the darker aspects of the 1950s like McCarthyism and the Cold War, the series focused on the adventures of well-scrubbed high schooler Richie Cunningham (Howard) and his pals Potsie (Anson Williams) and Ralph (Donny Most). Days‘ main difference from its Ozzie & Harriet-style family-sitcom predecessors came in the form of Fonzie, the greaser dropout (played by Yale University School of Drama grad Henry Winkler). Revered for his leather jacket and lady-killing ways, Fonzie soon began receiving the bulk of the show’s fan mail, and ABC bigwigs promptly beefed up his role. (In the 1975-76 season Fonzie even moved into an apartment over the Cunninghams’ garage; before too long Richie moved out.) The change paid off: Happy Days moved from middling ratings to No. 1 for the 1976-77 season, while sex symbol/role model Fonzie got his tonsils out, admitted to wearing glasses, became a Lamaze coach — and kept his ”cool” through it all.

Days‘ popularity enabled Marshall to spawn three spin-offs: the short-lived Joanie Loves Chachi; the hugely successful Laverne & Shirley (1976-83), which featured Cindy Williams and Marshall’s sister Penny, who now directs her own films (The Preacher’s Wife); and the equally beloved Mork & Mindy (1978-82), starring Pam Dawber and the then-unknown Robin Williams. From 1980 to 1983, ABC even aired an animated version of Happy Days on Saturday mornings. But Days‘ most visible legacy may be the producing and directing careers of Winkler (TV’s MacGyver) and the accomplished Howard (Apollo 13, Ransom).

By 1984, time finally vanquished the 1950s. After 255 episodes over 10 1/2 years, Happy Days came to an end. Proving incontrovertibly that those Days are history, Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution now houses Fonzie’s leather jacket, symbol of one generation’s sanitized past and artifact of another’s childhood TV hero.