It’s the classic Happy Days chicken or the egg conundrum. Who showed up first? Big Al or Arnold?
Correct answer? Big Al, on a technicality.
First, let’s set the table at Arnold’s. It was the place to be on Happy Days if you wanted to eat a burger, hang with your friends, listen to the jukebox, and flirt for a date. Pat Morita played Arnold, the owner of the diner. Meanwhile, Al Molinaro portrayed Big Al Delvecchio, who eventually became the owner of Arnold’s.
But on Happy Days, Molinaro shows up as Big Al before Morita came on the scene. He was in a Christmas episode in the second season. And that episode was called Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas. The original run date was Dec. 17, 1974. The plot involved Richie figuring out that Fonzie had nowhere to go for the holidays, so he invited him to spend it with the Cunninghams. Fans saw Big Al as a cook at Arnold’s. Here’s another notable detail about the episode. It was the last time fans saw Chuck Cunningham, Richie’s big brother.
Happy Days writer Lowell Ganz had a confusing time remembering whether Al or Arnold appeared first. He told the Television Academy: “Al had been there originally. Al was there first, Al was there before Pat.”
Then later in the interview, Ganz pondered whether he had Al and Arnold flipped. “Al left, and then Pat came in,” Ganz said. “And then Al came back. That’s what it was. I think!”
Got all that?
Morita became a part of the cast as Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi during a two-part episode in 1975 called Fearless Fonzarelli. That’s the Happy Days episode where Fonzie wants to try and jump 14 motorcycles in the parking lot of Arnold’s.
Morita played a recurring role in 1975-76, then made guest appearances later in the series. He initially left Happy Days to star in Mr. T and Tina, the first sitcom with Asian-Americans as the stars. Morita’s best-known role was Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.
Happy Days writers had Big Al buying the diner from Arnold. And Big Al played a big role as he appeared in 145 of the series 255 episodes. He eventually became Chachi’s stepdad. So he also was in the Happy Days spinoff Joanie Loves Chachi.
Molinaro had another hand in a successful Happy Days spinoff. He suggested Robin Williams as a last-minute replacement to play Mork. Williams and Molinaro knew each other from their improv acting classes. Mork and Mindy became a super successful sitcom that launched Robin Williams’ career.
And even when the show ended, Molinaro stayed part of it. He and Anson Williams, who played Potsie, started a chain of Big Al diners.
Sadly, Molinari and Morita are no longer with us. Morita was 73 when he passed away in 2005. Molinari died a decade later. He was 96.