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Saying good-bye to 'America's Dad'

Posted: October 22, 2010 10:54 a.m.
Updated: October 25, 2010 5:00 a.m.

In addition to my own father, I think I can ascribe some of my upbringing to Tom Bosley.

Or, rather, Mr. C -- Howard Cunningham -- the dad he played on TV for 10 years on “Happy Days.”

Mr. C wasn’t cool, at least not to his TV son, Ron “Richie” Howard, and daughter, Erin “Joanie” Moran. He was a bit fussy about what his kids got into and puzzled by their association with Henry Winkler’s Arthur “Fonz” Fonzarelli.

But he was truly one of the best TV dads there has ever been.

According to ABC, the network “Happy Days” ran on, Mr. C was ranked by TV Guide as the ninth most popular TV father, right along with Ward Cleaver, Andy Taylor, Cliff Huxtable and Mike Brady.

In a 2000 interview with the network, Bosley said he originally turned down the role but changed his mind because of the moving father-son relationship with Howard’s character.

With so many episodes, it’s hard to remember everything, but -- as you can imagine -- the Internet is a wonderful thing.

For instance, Mr. C wasn’t perfect. In the series’ eighth episode Cunningham is caught by his fake ID-wielding son watching a burlesque show at a local club.

On the other hand, like the show itself, Howard Cunningham was a tolerant man. One of his buddies from the Army was African American and Mr. C not only agreed to be his best man at the wedding, but to hold the ceremony at the Cunningham  home. Remember, while the show aired in 1970s, it was set in the 1950s.

Groundbreaking stuff, right up there, but in a quieter way, as “All In the Family.”

But for Howard Cunningham it was all about his family. He and his wife Marion, played by Marion Ross, worried about things like their daughter’s first date -- Fonzie’s cousin Spike (who was later “re-tooled” into Scott Baio’s Chachi) -- or the time she started smoking.

Howard also loved his wife, very much, but sometimes refused to get involved with some of her -- from his perspective -- silly ideas. Like entering a dance contest. When he refuses, she enlists the Fonz to help make Howard think there’s a mystery man in her life.

But it was his role as Richie’s father that spoke to the heart of the character. Whether it was advising Richie on how to deal with instant stardom from a winning basketball game to marriage advice toward the end of the series, Howard Cunningham had a special relationship with his son that spoke volumes to fathers and sons across the country.

He even played father to the Fonz after a while. When, in the second season, Fonzie announces he’s getting married, Howard recognizes her as a stripper from a Chicago convention. How he breaks the news is both funny and touching.

“Happy Days” was, of course, a sitcom, perhaps the family sitcom of the mid-70s to mid-80s. Consider the time Howard felt like running off to Tahiti. Why? It was his 45th birthday and family and friends had thrown him a “This is Your Life” birthday party.

What made Tom Bosley great was the fatherly or, in later roles, avuncular warmth he brought to everything he did.

His next most famous characters would be that of the titular role in the “Father Dowling Mysteries” (NBC its first season, ABC after that) and Amos Tupper on CBS’ “Murder She Wrote” with Angela Lansbury.

Where “Happy Days” took place in Milwaukee, Father Frank Dowling was a Catholic priest in Chicago. (Ironically, Bosley was Jewish.) And rather than being set in the 1950s and early ‘60s, it was a modern show than ran from 1987 to 1991.

For fun, they double-cast Bosley in some episodes as his con-man twin brother, Blaine, who would try to frame him on occasion. Dowling was helped by Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski whom I remember him treating much as a daughter or niece, although they certainly weren’t related.

As mystery shows go, I remember it being pretty good.

Bosley played Tupper on “Murder, She Wrote” immediately before taking on the Father Dowling role. He appeared on the show from its inception in 1984 until 1988. The character left to go live with his sister.

To be honest, I didn’t always watch Lansbury’s show, so while I remember Bosley being on the show, I don’t remember much about the character. Perhaps I’ll go back and check sometime.

Tom Bosley had performed in lots of other roles on TV, in the movies and on stage.

His “breakthrough,” according to one biography, was playing New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in a Broadway musical. Decades later, he would originate the role of Maurice in the Broadway version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

His first movie role was in “Love with the Proper Stranger,” opposite Natalie Wood.

Most recently, he appeared in “The Backup Plan” starring Jennifer Lopez.

He did voiceovers for cartoons and commercials.

But it will always be his role as Howard Cunningham that will keep Tom Bosley in many American’s affections.

Bosley died Tuesday at the age of 83.

“My last conversations with Tom reflected the love of life and peace of mind that he always maintained throughout his full and rewarding life. I miss him already,” Howard told ABC.

So do we. So do we.

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