‘Happy Days’: How Chuck Cunningham Became a Trope Long After the Show Ended

by Taylor Cunningham
Actors (left to right) Tom Bosley (Howard), Ron Howard (Ritchie), Anson Williams (Warren, "Potsie"), Donny Most (Ralph Malph), and Henry Winkler (Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli) at Arnold's Diner in a scene from the TV series Happy Days, which ran from January 1974-August 1984.

In season 2 of Happy Days, Richie’s older brother Chuck completely disappeared into a void of confusion. And while he had no part in the success of the show, he still became an integral part of classic TV history—or rather a trope called Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.

When the series began in 1974, Richie had two siblings, a sister, and a brother. His sister, Joanie, appeared in the series throughout its entire 10-year run. But his brother only showed his face a few times during two years.

Chuck was never a major character in the story, however. In fact, he only starred in 11 episodes. And all we really knew about him was that he liked baseball. Nonetheless, it was clear that Richie Cunningham came from a family of five.

But after Happy Days came back for season 3, the Cunninghams were short a person. Chuck was gone. And the characters never mentioned his name again. During season 11, Richie’s father Howard even went as far as mentioning that he was proud of his “two kids.” So it was as if Chuck never even existed.

In reality, Happy Days never had luck with Chuck Cunningham. Not only did he fit poorly into the plot, but the show couldn’t hold on to an actor. Upon the premiere, Randolph Roberts played the elusive character. Then the following year, Gavan O’Herlihy took over.

However, O’Herlihy was—understandably—not thrilled with his part because of his lack of screen time. And eventually, he found a higher-profile gig on Logan’s Run.

“I hung around for the first half-season, then asked out of the contract,” the actor told OnMilwaukee in 2013. “It wasn’t my cup of tea. It raised some eyebrows, but I’m glad I did.” 

After Losing Two Chuck Cunningham Actors, ‘Happy Days’ Decided to Scrap the Character Completely

With two stars gone in less than two seasons, the writers decided to wash their hands of the older brother once and for all. And instead of dealing with any future Chuck storylines, they erased him from Happy Days history.

But despite the fact that Chuck wasn’t an integral person in the legendary series, fans were still perplexed by his random disappearance. So perplexed that he became a part of folk history.

From his exit forward, whenever another central TV character would suffer the same fate, people would blame it on the Chuck Cunningham syndrome. And surprisingly, many characters caught the metaphorical illness.

Some of the most famous examples of Chuck Cunningham syndrome were Judy Winslow on Family Matter, Mark Brendanawicz on Parks and Recreation, and Tiger the Dog on The Brady Bunch.