Saturday 21 September 2019

Obituary: Al Molinaro US televison actor

Born, June 24, 1919; died, October 30, 2015

Al Molinaro in Happy Days
Al Molinaro in Happy Days

Al Molinaro, the actor, who has died aged 96, was best known for playing Big Al Delvecchio, the owner of Arnold's Diner in the nostalgic US sitcom Happy Days.

The series, set in Milwaukee, in Molinaro's home state of Wisconsin, harked back to the 1950s as a happier and more innocent age. It ran for 11 seasons from 1974 until 1984, with Molinaro joining the show in its second year.

With his Roman nose, hangdog looks and waddling gait, Molinaro brought physical presence and light relief to the diner. There he presided benignly over the antics of the youthful gang which included Henry Winkler's leather-jacketed Fonz and the flame-haired Ritchie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard. He soon devised a catchphrase, introducing anecdotes with a muttered "Yep-yep-yep-yep."

The programme's creator, Garry Marshall, knew Molinaro from The Odd Couple, a previous hit series which they had made together. They had been introduced by Marshall's sister Penny, who was later to star in a spin-off from Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley. Meanwhile, after some 170 episodes, Molinaro hung up his cook's apron to appear in another off-shoot of the programme, Joanie Loves Chachi, although this only survived for a year.

By then, he had repaid the faith shown in him by Marshall by doing some star spotting of his own. When the actor slated to play an alien in an episode of Happy Days failed to show up at short notice, Molinaro suggested replacing him with a young, budding comedian called Robin Williams. Such was the reaction to Williams's performance that it led to the creation of his own series, Mork and Mindy, which launched his acting career.

"I spent 20 years here before I got anything going," reflected Molinaro towards the end of his career, "and from that I got lucky… You've just got to be lucky and in the right place at the right time."

The youngest of 10 children, he was born Umberto Francesco (later Albert Francis) Molinaro, on June 24, 1919, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where his father owned restaurants and hotels. He struggled at school but was a good clarinet player and discovered a talent for public speaking. At 21, encouraged by a friend who knew that he wanted to act, he took a bus to Los Angeles.

While working on the fringes of the television industry, he built up a debt collection agency and then began to buy land for property development. In the early 1960s he sold one lot to the builders of a large shopping mall, providing him with a financial cushion to pursue his acting ambitions. Bit parts in shows such as Bewitched and Get Smart followed, but his break came when he joined an improvisational comedy class in 1970. There he met Penny Marshall, then an actress and subsequently the director of films such as Big. She introduced him to her brother, Garry, who cast him as the slow-witted cop Murray in The Odd Couple, the television series he was producing based on Neil Simon's play.

Starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as the mismatched flatmates, it ran for five years. By then Molinaro's battered features had become familiar to US audiences. In one episode, trying to ascertain whether Klugman's character was in, Molinaro pushed his nose through the door's peephole. "Oh, hi, Murray!" calls out Klugman at once.

After leaving Happy Days, Molinaro appeared in several short-lived series before retiring in the early 1990s. As Big Al he reappeared in 1994 in the video for the song 'Buddy Holly' by the band Weezer. For more than two decades, he also promoted frozen dinners in television commercials.

He had opened a chain of diners in the Mid-West in the late-1980s with Anson Williams, who had played Potsie in Happy Days, but the venture was not a success. Garry Marshall repeatedly offered him roles in the films that he went on to make, notably Pretty Woman, but Molinaro turned these down.

"I can't work in movies with Garry because I'm so square that I won't be in a movie that has four-letter words in it," he explained. "That puts me pretty much totally out of films these days." Nonetheless, syndication of Happy Days ensured that he was known even by younger generations of viewers, and he defended the show against charges that it sentimentalised the 1950s.

"In the industry, they used to consider us like a bubblegum show," he said. "But I think they overlooked one thing. To the public in America, Happy Days was an important show, and I think it was and I think it still is."

His first marriage, in 1948, to Jacquelin Martin was dissolved. He married secondly, in 1981, Betty Farrell. She survives him together with the son of his first marriage.

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