By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 10:22 PM
Tom Bosley, 83, a Tony Award-winning stage actor who enjoyed a long career on television, notably as the mild-mannered Cunningham patriarch on "Happy Days," a mild-mannered sheriff on "Murder, She Wrote" and a mild-mannered priest-detective on "Father Dowling Mysteries," died Oct. 19 at a hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He had lung cancer.
Portly and soft-featured, Mr. Bosley cultivated an avuncular public persona in his best-known roles. But if there seemed an additional poignancy to Mr. Bosley's death, it was probably because he died three days after Barbara Billingsley, who played the wholesome mother of the Cleaver clan on "Leave It to Beaver."
Just as Billingsley helped define the cultural ideal of American suburban motherhood in the 1950s, Mr. Bosley did the same for middle-American fatherhood in "Happy Days," which was set in Milwaukee in the 1950s and aired from 1974 to 1984 on ABC.
Mr. Bosley was not the original Howard Cunningham, a married hardware store owner with two kids, Richie (played by Ron Howard) and Joanie (Erin Moran). Actor Harold Gould played Howard Cunningham in a 1972 episode of "Love, American Style," an ABC comedy anthology show.
But Gould was unavailable when the network decided to move forward with a separate "Happy Days" series building off the appeal of nostalgia spurred in part by movie successes such as George Lucas's "American Graffiti" (1973).
Mr. Bosley was a core part of the ensemble cast, which included Henry Winkler as the hip-talking motorcycle lothario Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli. The Fonz and his gestures of coolness - thumbs-up, the happy cry of "Aaayy!" - offered a comic contrast to the square lifestyle personified by the Cunningham family. To the Fonz, Howard Cunningham was strictly "Mr. C."
If not terribly innovative by critical standards, "Happy Days" was nonetheless influential as a commercial juggernaut. Its self-titled theme song became a pop hit, and the show led to spinoff sitcoms including "Laverne & Shirley" and "Mork & Mindy."
"I think our timing was very right," Mr. Bosley told the Associated Press in 1984. "We were just coming out of the hippie era, where the moral fiber of the family was in jeopardy. I don't say it's been entirely restored, but I think we've been a major influence in getting people to look at themselves."
The show made Mr. Bosley a household name and helped sustain a front-ranked career for many years to come.
He had initially burst to acclaim in 1959 in the title role of the musical "Fiorello!," which traced the rise of the charismatic politician Fiorello LaGuardia from young lawyer and congressman to reformist mayor of New York.
The play, which ran more than two years on Broadway, won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and featured a script by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott and music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, respectively.
Mr. Bosley, who was required to sing in several languages, won the 1960 Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical. New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that Mr. Bosley captured the "abundant energy and explosive personality" of the role.
Thomas Edward Bosley was born Oct. 1, 1927, in Chicago. Despite his later role in priestly garb, he was Jewish.
After Navy service, he returned to his home town in 1947 and signed up for radio announcing classes in the hope of being a sportscaster.
"I thought I had a better chance at acting, so in 1950 I flipped a coin to decide if I wanted to hit New York or California," he told the Toronto Star in 1986. "When the coin came up California, I headed for New York."
He appeared off-Broadway and at such regional theaters as Washington's Arena Stage before his sudden success in "Fiorello!" He subsequently earned supporting roles in films such as "The World of Henry Orient" (1964) and "Divorce American Style" (1967) and roles on TV shows including "The Debbie Reynolds Show" and "The Sandy Duncan Show."
From 1984 to 1988, he played the recurring role of a Maine sheriff named Amos Tupper on the long-running detective drama "Murder, She Wrote." He was typically outsleuthed by the widowed mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury.
He left the series to appear in a rare leading role on "Father Dowling Mysteries," which ran until 1991.
Based on a series of novels by Ralph McInerny, "Father Dowling Mysteries" followed the crime-solving adventures of a Chicago priest whose low-key appearance cloaked a savvy mind and persistent nature. He inserted himself into criminal cases that the city police could not solve and had a young nun sidekick played by Tracy Nelson.
Mr. Bosley returned to stage work in the 1990s, notably on Broadway as Belle's father in Disney's lavishly produced, Tony-nominated musical "Beauty and the Beast," which was based on a critically acclaimed Disney animated film from 1991 that won Oscars for its music.
Mr. Bosley also toured nationally in musicals, including the 1920s evergreen "Showboat," and was a longtime pitchman for Glad trash bags.
In 1962, Mr. Bosley married dancer Jean Eliot. Two years after being widowed in 1978, he married actress-producer Patricia Carr. Besides his wife, of Palm Springs, Calif., survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Amy Baer; two stepdaughters; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
In a 1997 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Mr. Bosley said he had no objection when people recognized him on the street and shouted to him "Hey, Mr. C," as the Fonz did so many times on "Happy Days."
He added that people often confused him with the late character actor David Doyle, who played the detective assistant Bosley on "Charlie's Angels" in the late 1970s. He said producer Aaron Spelling named the character after him.
"He wanted me to play that part," Mr. Bosley said. "I said, 'Aaron, I'm already in a hit show!' "