Thursday, October 21, 2010

Losing Tom Bosley

It's a bad week for TV sitcom icons. First Barbara Billingsley, now the beloved "Mr. C" from Happy Days, Tom Bosley, has died at the age of 83. For fans of Happy Days, which is on the whole a much better sitcom than most people probably remember it as, his loss means a timely opportunity to revisit the show. The new Hub network, the replacement for Discovery Kids, is running Happy Days (and its spinoff Laverne & Shirley) and as you will learn from reading this article from Media Post, so far it's a hit.

Bosley's Howard Cunningham -- successful proprietor of Cunningham Hardware, proud member of the Leopard Lodge -- was an easygoing presence and a loving husband to the voluptuous Mrs. C, played by Marion Ross. Especially in the first two seasons of the show, in the episodes that weren't filmed live in front a studio audience, Bosley's subtle take on suburban fatherhood was unmatchable. After that, when the Henry Winkler as the Fonz ascended to TV godhood and the over-enthusiastic audience would stop the show with screams and applause every time Fonzie entered the scene, everybody else was a little less than they could be, even a Tony Award-winning actor like Tom Bosley.

But Bosley was still plenty good. Watch some of those early episodes, when the shows were a one-camera treat, for some actual medium close-ups of Bosley, giving it his all as he parented his children Richie, Joanie and the disappearing Chuck. (I highly recommend the 2nd season's "Haunted" episode, the first and best Happy Days Halloween episode, with great moments between Bosley and Ron Howard.) Completely delightful, and something much different than when Happy Days played more like a high school play (because of that audience) than a clever nostalgic sitcom with great writing.

Here's a vintage ABC Happy Days/Laverne & Shirley promo, with the voice-over of the ever-recognizable Ernie Anderson:

Tom Bosley was a man of television, beginning his career after his WW II Navy service, soon getting lots of roles on early TV and also establishing a successful stage career, including winning his Tony for the title role in the 1959 Broadway musical Fiorello. His greatest successes were on TV, though, first as guest star in seemingly every series from the 1960s to the mid-1970s -- Bonanza, Naked City, Route 66, Dr. Kildare (and Ben Casey, and Marcus Welby, MD!), The Defenders, Get Smart, The Virginian, The Mod Squad and so many more -- and co-starring roles in (short-lived) series The Debbie Reynolds Show, and The Sandy Duncan Show. Check out his IMDb listing for his complete credit list -- it's unbelievably impressive.

In 1974 Bosley landed on Happy Days, and a TV legend was born. Over 255 episodes -- only he and Henry Winkler appeared in every single HD segment over the show's ten year run -- Bosley honed his portrayal of the lovable, only slightly irascible, and generally good-natured Howard Cunningham. Post-Happy Days, Bosley was still in high demand as a guest star on many series, and he became a semi-regular on Angela Lansbury's Murder, She Wrote as Sheriff Tupper. Bosley also headlined his own mystery series as a crime-solving priest in the Father Dowling Mysteries which ran for 44 episodes beginning in 1987. In addition he was a prolific voice-over actor, including playing the title role in the animated Wait Till Your Father Gets Home back in 1972 and lending his voice to many other cartoon characters over the years.

A great and long career, a resume full of accomplished performances, and a few honors on your mantel -- not a bad legacy, and I haven't even mentioned the warm place where Tom Bosley, especially as Mr. C, resides in our cultural panorama. Howard Cunningham wasn't Tom Bosley, and Tom Bosley wasn't Howard Cunningham, but the actor informed the character and brought life and spirit to the writers' words. They fit well together, and I'm sure the rest of the guys at the Leopard Lodge are missing their Grand Poohbah big time. So are we.

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