‘Happy Days’: The Show Was Originally Supposed to Be Set in This Era

by Suzanne Halliburton
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It seems odd that Happy Days ever could stand as a show from any other decade than the 1950s.

Seriously, where would the series be without sock hops and Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets. Happy Days was plaid button downs, malts, cuffed jeans, bobby socks, freckles and one famous black leather jacket.

Yet Happy Days creator Garry Marshall said in a 2015 interview that he initially was tasked to do another show from the (checks notes) roaring 20s. How is that possible? Fonzie as a flapper? Marshall talked about the show’s genesis during an interview with The Guardian.

“In 1971, I was asked to make a show about flappers in the 1920s and 30s,” Marshall said. “I said I know nothing about that era, but I’ll do it if it’s set in the 50s. Back then, it would have been hard to do an honest depiction of teenagers without showing drugs and booze – and we didn’t want to do that. By making it nostalgic, we avoided all that.”

Happy Days Wasn’t Only Show From Another Decade In 1970s-era TV

Happy Days premiered in 1974. And the show wasn’t the only one on TV that did a series from another decade. M*A*S*H, a series about the 4077th medical unit in the Korean War, ranked fifth in the rankings. The Waltons, a family drama, was set in the Great Depression. It ranked seventh in the year-end ratings. Then there was Little House on the Prairie, which was set a century ago.

So some sort of nostalgia was a good hook to sell to a TV audience.

Plus, ABC had a good idea how a teen comedy from the 1950s would play across the country. They saw the popularity of American Graffiti, one of director George Lucas’ earliest movies. Lucas based the movie on his life growing up in Modesto, Calif. Except his movie was based in the early 1960s, not the 50s.

The movie starred Ron Howard, aka Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. And it featured other future TV and movie stars like Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, Richard Dreyfuss and Cindy Williams.

Original Working Title Was New Family In Town

The original working title for Happy Days was called New Family In Town. Then it was Love in the Happy Days. But it always was about life and time in the 1950s. Marshall retooled the show once it was on air. After all, Fonzie was supposed to be only a recurring role, not the breakout star.

“When I did the original pilot, no one would buy it,” Marshall said. “The networks said who cares about the 50s? Luckily, along came a wonderful film called American Graffiti and ABC said: “We can have some of that.” Fonzie wasn’t in the original, but I soon realized I wanted a character from the other side of the tracks. I grew up in the Bronx and patented him off a guy in my neighborhood called Anthony, who could tie a rope to an ice truck and pull it along with his teeth. I always thought that was magical.”

And Happy Days turned out to be a pretty magical show.

Marshall died in 2016. He was 81. He also worked his entertainment magic in the movies, giving us Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride.

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