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Friday, March 16, 2012

The Happiest Days Of Richie Cunningham

Welcome to the 301st blog entry in the Pop Culture Addict's Guide To Life!

And, for the 301st entry, I thought that it was time to feature another TGIF character spotlight. It's been a while since I've done one of these, and I thought it might be fun to try. Past character spotlights that I have done over the years included Full House's Stephanie Tanner, Three's Company's Jack Tripper, and Donna Martin from Beverly Hills 90210.

For this subject, we're going to take a trip back to 1974, when we first met this character on television.

Or, was it really 1954?

Yeah, that was the first gimmick that the show did. It was actually set twenty years prior to the current date. Set during the 1950s, we all got a look back on what life was really like in the 1950s and 1960s through the eyes of a group of high school students who hung out at Arnold's Drive-In.

Of course, I'm talking about “Happy Days”, the popular ABC sitcom created by Garry Marshall. And, the sitcom had an incredibly long shelf life. Beginning as a mid-season replacement for ABC on January 21, 1974, the sitcom ran for over a decade, ending its run in September 1984. A total of 250 episodes were filmed, and still reportedly airs in syndication on cable channels all over the world.

I admit that I was a little young to remember the show when it first aired. I wasn't even born when the show debuted, and I was only three years old when the show ended its original run. In my early childhood though, I believe our CBC affiliate used to air reruns of the show after Fraggle Rock (or maybe it was before, I can't really remember). But because I loved Fraggle Rock, I often ended up watching “Happy Days” as well.

I actually loved the show. I didn't quite get all the jokes, and I certainly didn't understand why people wore poodle skirts and the men all had bad haircuts when it was clearly 1987 (yeah...I had a very poor concept of history back in those days), but I just found myself mesmerized by the program.

I think part of it was the characters. It didn't matter that I knew what the characters were doing or not...each one had their own distinct personality, and from the minute you saw them appear on screen, you knew them by their character names.

For instance, you knew that the Japanese guy behind the counter of the drive-in was Arnold. You knew that the guy wearing the leather jacket who told everyone to 'sit on it' was Fonzie. You knew that the girl and the boy who ended up getting their own spin-off show were Joanie and Chachi.

(At the same time, when I was younger, I always mixed up Ralph Malph with Potsie, and vice versa.)

But the character I've chosen to spotlight is the character who was originally conceived to be the star of the show (before the character of Fonzie grew in popularity). After all, when the cast wasn't hanging around Arnold's, they were always at his house. In fact, in earlier seasons, the show only used two sets...Arnold's, and the Cunningham family residence.

Today, we're taking a look back on the character of Richie Cunningham, portrayed by Ron Howard.

Certainly, Richie Cunningham wasn't the first major role that Ron Howard played. Many people who remember “The Andy Griffith Show” remember him as Opie. But, to me, whenever I see Ron Howard in interviews, or watch one of the movies he directed, I'll always see him as Richie Cunningham. That's just how much of an impact he had with the character.

The show was set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the first few episodes of the series made Richie the focus of most of the episodes during the first two seasons. Take the plot of the very first episode (All The Way) for instance. In that episode, Richie goes on a date that Potsie arranged for him. The girl's name is Mary Lou, and the buzz around school is that Mary Lou is considered to be a girl with a bit of a “reputation”. Although nothing of that caliber actually happens on the date itself, Richie, not wanting to be seen as a loser, makes his friends believe that something DID happen.

Not exactly what one would classify as Richie Cunningham like behaviour, is it?

But then again, during that first episode, Richie did a lot of things that could be considered naughty. Sure, to the eyes of his parents, Howard and Marion Cunningham, Richie was the perfect son. With his red hair and innocent demeanor, he looked almost like a real-life version of Archie Andrews.

But, Archie Andrews was never innocent. And neither was Richie Cunningham either. Some of the things that he ended up doing included the following.

  • he got drunk at a stag party (Richie's Cup Runneth Over)
  • he snuck out of the house to watch a drag race that Fonzie was competing in (Guess Who's Coming To Visit)
  • Richie tags along with Potsie to see a stripper (The Skin Game)
  • he was tempted to help Fonzie cheat in school when he re-enrolled (Fonzie Drops In)

Certainly upon first glance, these activities may make one paint the character of Richie Cunningham in a rather bad light. But, if we watch the very episodes that I have highlighted, you'll see that the situations usually end up being a good thing for Richie. I don't recall him guzzling down the booze in any episode after the one he got drunk in, so I guess he learned his lesson. And, you really think that Richie would allow Fonzie to get through life by cheating through it? He was tempted, yes, but he stuck to his guns, and as a result, I actually believe Richie and Fonzie became better friends as a result of Richie's refusal to let Fonzie cheat.

It was really nice to see.

Of course, there were situations that Richie managed to find himself an accidental victim of, and it was up to him to decide whether to make the right choice or not. I can think of one episode in particular where he was in such a spot.

It was the second season episode entitled “Big Money”. First of all, I thought it was pretty ingenious of the producers and writers to have an episode surrounding the 1950s quiz show scandals where the shows were often rigged in the name of ratings. And, sure enough, that was the very dilemma that Richie was faced with. Richie ends up becoming a contestant on the popular game show “Big Money”, and at first he does quite well. This is all great news for Richie, as he has the chance to win five thousand dollars in cash (which might I add that in the mid-1950s was worth a ton). Problem is that time runs out in his first appearance for him to get to the final question. So, with the taping of the next show the following day, his family and friends get together to try and cram as much general knowledge inside his head so that he may be able to have the best possible chance to win the money. I think that Richie could have had a great shot to win on his own, as he was always considered to be quite intelligent. But, unfortunately, Richie wouldn't have the opportunity to play fair. The host of the program had slipped Richie an envelope containing the answers to the questions, guaranteeing Richie a win. So, the question is...does Richie cheat and take home the five thousand dollars, or does he not cheat, and go home without the cash?

You can click HERE to find out. I'm sure that the answer is one that isn't surprising to those of you who have watched the show, but I think it's fun to watch old episodes anyway.

Over the course of the first few seasons, I think that there are a ton of moments in which Richie really had some of the happiest days of his life. And, some of those happiest days were spent trying to make other people happy.

It's hard to forget that Richie was the one who invited Fonzie over to his family's home for Christmas in the episode “Guess Who's Coming To Christmas” (which coincidentally was the last episode that Richie's brother Chuck appeared in before walking through the black hole where missing children from television sitcoms go). One season later, Fonzie actually ended up moving into the Cunningham house when Richie suggested that he move in after Howard started worrying about the family finances. At first, Howard was not up to the idea at all, but eventually, he caved, and Fonzie ended up staying.

If anything, having Fonzie living with the Cunninghams helped strengthen the tight bond between Richie and Fonzie.

And, Fonzie was just as wonderful of a friend to Richie as Richie was to Fonzie. When Richie was being bullied by a couple of goons who made fun of him while he was on a date, Fonzie encouraged him to learn jujitsu to defend himself. When Richie was having a bit of trouble finding a woman to date, Fonzie decided to help Richie out by setting him up on a double date. The girls? A couple of women named Laverne and Shirley, who happened to get their own show shortly after they appeared on Happy Days!

And Richie actually shares a personality trait with this blogger. No, I don't have red hair, have Marion Ross as my mother, or have an annoying sister named Joanie. But, I do love to write, and Richie Cunningham loved to write on the show as well. Some of the show's funniest episodes involved Richie's work with the school newspaper. One episode took place on the set of the television studio where the show “Howdy Doody” filmed, and Richie's assignment was to snap a picture of Clarabelle the Clown without her makeup. It was a nice lighthearted episode filled with laughs and hilarity.

But Richie's gift with words once got him into trouble, and it almost cost him his friendship with Fonzie as a result. The episode was titled “The Muck-Rakers”, and it started off quite innocently when Potsie ended up breaking a tooth on the school cafeteria meatloaf. Richie goes undercover to expose the terrible conditions of the school cafeteria, and write an article detailing all the terrible violations he spotted inside. The article proves to be a huge hit, and Richie decides to do a follow-up almost immediately. The problem is that in the follow-up, he puts in information regarding Fonzie's unusual fear of liver...information that Fonzie didn't want anyone else to know. Fonzie practically begged Richie not to print it in the article. But, Richie does, and Fonzie is furious. It would seem that the friendship was over, but if you click HERE, you'll see the clip where Fonzie and Richie hash it out.

By season five, Richie has found the love of his life, one Lori Beth Allen. And, just like any other instance in which Richie has had dates, the first date he had with Lori Beth didn't go as planned. The episode “Hard Cover” has Richie meeting Lori Beth for the first time at the college library (a suggestion by Fonzie). They immediately hit it off, and Richie decides to go back to her dorm hall to know her better. If only Richie knew that at ten o'clock every evening, the entire dormitory went into lockdown. But, as you know, Richie lost all track of time, and he ended up locked inside the dorm. This was really a serious situation for Lori Beth. Because the dormitory was all female, if a male happened to be caught inside after the doors were locked, it meant immediate expulsion for poor Lori Beth. And, this episode can be watched HERE. Take my word for's worth every minute.

(For the record, Richie and Lori Beth end up getting married towards the end of the series.)

I think there's one final episode that I really should post when talking about Richie Cunningham. It was an episode that was almost his last.

Of course, when the episode title happens to be “Richie Almost Dies”, I think it's a pretty clear indicator that you know what the ultimate conclusion is for the episode, but the episode is fantastic, just because we saw some things that we never thought we would.

In the episode, Richie finally manages to save up enough money to buy himself a motorcycle. It's been a dream of his to own one for a while, but Howard and Marion are very worried about Richie owning one. They fear that he would get hurt riding one. Of course, Richie doesn't take heed of their warnings. As far as he was concerned, he had to have the motorcycle, and he looked forward to giving Lori Beth a ride.

But, Richie ends up having a really bad accident. An accident so severe, he ended up in a coma. Marion and Howard are absolutely devastated over the accident, and when the doctor reveals that there's a possibility that Richie may not come out of the coma, everyone is very upset.

Of course, none are more upset than Fonzie. In fact, watch the clip below to see some rather powerful acting by Mr. Henry Winkler regarding Richie's accident. Some might think that the clip hasn't aged well, but I think that it was poignant for the time.

TRIVIA: When the Happy Days 30th anniversary special aired in 2004, Henry Winkler revealed during the filming that Fonzie's breakdown was actually done intentionally per the request of teachers who taught abused children. They wanted to show that it was okay for someone as “cool” as Fonzie to show emotion.

And, just so you were wondering, Richie did survive with nothing more than a broken arm. I mean, the episode was called “Richie ALMOST Dies”.

That's about all that I have to say about Richie Cunningham. As many of you know, Ron Howard's contract role came to an end in 1980, but over the next four years, Ron Howard would continue playing Richie on a recurring basis. He even appeared on the series finale in 1984 (presumably right around the time that he was working on the film “Splash”). So, I thought to close this blog entry off, I would post Richie Cunningham's final appearance on the show. I think it pretty much says it all...though what the heck is up with that moustache?

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