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'Happy Days': Little More Than Fonz Memories

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page C01

" 'Happy Days' trivia" is a redundant term, because the show was trivia itself, or at least trivial. It was one of the dopiest hits in prime-time history, almost amateurish in execution, but people who watched it in their youth may feel great affection for it just the same. We always love the TV we grew up with.

Garry Marshall, the obnoxious huckster who put the show together and produced it, still has a lot of energy -- and the zest for life common to multimillionaires. He's all over ABC's "Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion" (8 p.m. on Channel 7), a very long two hours that brings together most of the show's core cast for a feast of clips and a round of reminiscence. And a bevy of bloopers -- but a small bevy, alas, and you have to wait forever for them.

Henry Winkler, left, and Ron Howard back in the "Happy Days" glory days. (ABC)

The special really could have been called "When We Return," not because the cast is returning but because Marshall and others must say "When We Return" a dozen times within the two hours. The program seems even more perforated with commercial breaks than other ABC fare, and that's unconscionable.

People who liked "Happy Days" will, nevertheless, probably like the special, and those who found "Happy Days" a farce in the bad sense of that word are likely to be bored to death, though they may want to watch in a kind of anthropological way: Here is how America of the 1970s imagined America of the 1950s -- through rose-colored camera lenses that made the decade a celebration of teenage years and a blatant rip-off of "American Graffiti."

Marshall says bluntly that he liked the idea of doing a series about the '50s because he realized that it could play forever in reruns; it wouldn't age because it was supposed to look old. "Happy Days" evolved not into a show about the '50s, but a show about growing up and about whatever days people look back on as having been happy for them.

Among those gathered together for the reunion, taped in Hollywood, are Henry Winkler, whose friendly tough guy, Fonzie, became the most popular figure on the show and probably the key factor in its success. Winkler discusses very seriously how he wanted to play a "hood" who did not stand in front of the mirror combing his hair, unlike all other TV and movie hoods, but the writers thought this absolutely had to be seen in the show, following the dictates of the stereotype.

So Winkler came up with a cute compromise: Fonzie takes out his comb and looks into the mirror, then, realizing his looks are perfect and cannot be improved upon, shrugs and puts the comb away. "I was being true to myself and respectful to what was written," he says, as if he'd been doing Shakespeare.

Other appearances include Ron Howard, who was Richie Cunningham not long after playing the adorable little tot on "The Andy Griffith Show" (and is now a filmmaker worth zillions); Penny Marshall, Garry's sister, and Cindy Williams, who played Laverne and Shirley and who later, of course, got a show of their own; and Marion Ross, somehow one of the sexiest "moms" ever in a sitcom.

Ross's outlook may or may not have broadened over the years; the rest of her certainly has. But she's still a good sport, a charmer, much too good to be married to Tom Bosley, who'd become a star on Broadway and always looked cranky about starring in a mere TV show, even one that made him rich.

Happily, Garry Marshall takes time on the special to acknowledge that "Happy Days" inspired the phrase "jumping the shark," which in showbiz lingo and in everyday language has come to mean going too far, exploiting something beyond even the usual American excess. It emanates from a week in which the writers, having run out of sane ideas, decided to build a story line around Fonzie jumping over a shark while on water skis.

Certain mysteries about "Happy Days" are not solved. Two actors who played the part of Richie's older brother are brought out to take bows, but no one ever explains how the character later came to be written out of the show, even after having been around long enough to be played by two different actors. Another curious fact is that all the clips from "Happy Days" look terrible, as did the series -- photographically grubby, washed-out and cheap. It's as if the film were sent to the corner drugstore for developing.

Probably this was a case of Paramount Television or Marshall or both being penny-pinching tightwads. Reruns of sitcoms like "Bewitched" and even 50-year-old "I Love Lucys" can look gorgeous restored for DVD, but "Happy Days" will probably never look anything but cruddy. Maybe that is somehow part of the show's charm.

Also unhappily absent from the reunion special is the ingenious video that a group called Weezer made a few years ago for their song "Buddy Holly." Spike Jonze, the brilliant director, managed to shoot new footage of the band and mix it almost seamlessly with clips from the original show, even going so far as to make the color look putrid. The video was a '90s look at a '70s look at the '50s -- sort of déjà-déjà-déjà vu -- and wittier than anything ever seen on "Happy Days" itself.

Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion (two hours) will be shown at 8 p.m. on Channel 7.

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