‘Happy Days’: How Richie’s Brother Disappearing From Show Sparked the TV Term ‘Chuck Cunningham Syndrome’

by Emily Morgan

For years, “Happy Days” has remained an iconic fixture in the entertainment world and American culture. Despite being one of TV’s most well-known group of characters, many fans may not remember that a former character coined a frequently used term. 

For those with a sharp memory, you might remember the “Happy Days” character, Chuck Cunningham. He was the Cunningham’s oldest son and Richie and Joanie’s older brother, played by Gavan O’Herlihy. 

If you’re scratching your head right now, you’re probably not the only one. You may not remember his character because the creator’s cut him from the show after the first two seasons. Today, it’s still a mystery as to what happened to Chuck, but many believe he was written out because he went off to college. 

O’Herlihy once gave insight as to why he was written off. “I hung around for the first half-season, then asked out of the contract, he told a fan in an email in 2013. “It wasn’t my cup of tea. It raised some eyebrows, but I’m glad I did.”

Even though fans didn’t see Chuck Cunningham continue with the cast, he helped coin a term used today. Known as the “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” the phrase describes television characters that have seemingly vanished from a show. 

For decades, the phrase has inundated lectures, forums and has become a historical trope studied and examined by many. 

Chuck Cunningham Syndrome From ‘Happy Days’ Seen in Entertainment Today

Here’s how it works. Those inflicted with the syndrome are basically pulled out of a plotline, and those left onscreen carry on as if the character was never there.

Writers will use this device when they lose interest in the character and don’t want to make an effort in writing out the character. The result is that, hopefully, the audience forgets about them entirely. 

Little did the late Garry Marshall know that his decision to remove Chuck would create a term used long after the show stopped filming. In almost every entertainment medium, there’s a reference to the “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.” 

From advertising to professional wrestling to video games, the trope gets used. The famous cartoon “Family Guy” even makes a direct call back to the phrase. In the episode titled, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Fonz,” Peter Griffin references Cunningham.

“Let us pause to reflect on the sacred mystery of Richie’s elder brother Chuck, who ascended the stairs with his basketball in season one and never came down again,” Griffin says in the episode. 

As for O’Herlihy, he’s doing just fine without “Happy Days.” He has 55 acting credits, according to his IMDB page. You may have seen him in Death Wish 3Superman III, and “Tales From The Crypt.” Currently, he has a film in post-production titled Queen of the Redwood Mountains.