ST. JACOBS, ONT.—The minute he sits across the table from me at Jack’s Family Restaurant, it’s like a time warp back to 1977.
Donny Most — sorry, “Don” — who rose to fame on one of the biggest TV hits of the ’70s, hasn’t changed a bit.
His once bright orange hair is now an autumnal shade of cantaloupe and the beard covering his face is specked with grey.
But if a “Happy Days” fan passed him on the street, there would be no doubt about his prime-time lineage.
Ralph Malph, wisecracking sidekick to Richie, Potsie and The Fonz, is alive and kicking at 66.
And as he does his best to gulp down a lox and bagel sandwich plate between rehearsals at St. Jacobs’s Country Playhouse — where he’s starring in the three-hander dramedy “Art” — he marvels at the efficiency of the waitress who hoovers in to extricate a fly from his wine glass.
“Oh, I didn’t see that,” he muses, clearly impressed as she removes the offending insect. “How did she notice that?”
I like this ageless sitcom star for many reasons, but the main one is that — despite a satirical “Family Guy” segment that labelled his “Donny” to “Don” transformation an act of thespian hubris — there’s nothing about him that reeks of jaded Hollywood celebrity.
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Whether it’s his unflappable reaction to a fly doing the backstroke, the indignity of trying to eat with a tape recorder jammed in his face or his candid reminiscences about the iconic sitcom that both defined and restricted his career, he’s happy to hold court with what seems an unusual lack of pretense.
“It was a mixed blessing,” he says of the clownish goofball whose cocky catchphrase — “I still got it!” — defined him for a generation.
“In many ways, it paved the way, opened up doors, for things that may not have been accessible.
“But in some ways, it also shut the doors.”
He pauses, any lingering resentment muted by time. “I was looking for a very varied career in terms of kinds of characters I could play in different mediums: film, TV, theatre.
“I’d been doing one character for seven seasons (1974-80) and actually decided not to renew my contract. I told my agent, ‘I don’t want to do TV for a while, just film and theatre.’”
Knowing laugh: “After six months I didn’t have one audition. It was like hitting a brick wall.”
In those days, when TV was commonly referred to as “the idiot box,” it was rare for TV actors — let alone second bananas — to transition to the big screen: “Travolta and Sally Field were about the only ones.”
When this hard truth belatedly hit home, he found the door tough to pry back open: “I had closed myself off for a few years. I shot myself in the foot.”
Regrets? Not really.
There was, it turns out, a moment that crystallized his decision to leave, and it can be summed up in three words: jump the shark.
“I was starting to get a little disenchanted about where the scripts were going,” he notes, referencing the historic episode in which leather-jacketed Fonzie dons swim trunks and literally jumps over a shark on water-skis.
“The writing had been really good, but they changed producers, there were some other writers and it gets tough after four or five seasons for a show.”
Decades later, that scene — and “jump the shark” descriptor — would become a metaphor for every hit show that runs out of juice, creatively, and goes sailing over a credibility cliff.
“I remember I was reading the scripts and I’d be disappointed, frustrated and talking to someone: ‘Don’t you see it? Don’t you agree with me? We’re going kinda down!’ “ recalls Most. “I was not liking it.
“Ron (Howard, the show’s star and future A-list film director) did some interview on somebody’s podcast and said ‘Donny was starting to get upset with the scripts and I remember he came over and said ‘Now they’ve got The Fonz jumping a shark!‘ “
He grins, happy to be credited with coining the phrase: “I don’t know if I would have predicted that this was a historical moment.”
As he relates this last line in true Ralph Malph fashion, stifling a mischievous giggle, it’s clear our interview has moved from a cordial public-relations exercise to something more organic, freewheeling, in the moment.
“Ron admitted that he told me, ‘Well, we’re No. 1! I think they know what they’re doing!’ ”
At this point it seems relevant to point out that when I interviewed “Laverne & Shirley” star Cindy Williams, who appeared in a Drayton production in June, she was much less eager to dwell on her sitcom past, worried it would detract from promoting the play at hand.
Most — disarmingly down to earth — seems much less reticent.
“I think I’ve embraced it more and more,” he admits of his “Happy Days” heyday.
“I understand people are going to want to hear about it. It’s easier now because there’s so much time and space.”
He also knows that — 39 years after his departure — people still perceive him, at least initially, as the smirking jokester always being put in his place by The Fonz.
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“It’s a tricky thing,” he confides, insisting his real personality is nothing like his TV alter ego.
“On one hand, they might see you that way. But they also express so much affection for that character and for me. And then I’m going ‘Oh, am I going to disappoint them when they see I’m not that guy?’
“I was never the comedian or trying to be funny. I was kind of introverted and shy and my friends were the ones cracking jokes. I was their audience.”
You might think starring in a regional theatre production would be a step down for a guy once beamed into living rooms across North America, who dreamed of big-screen glory.
But Most — with duel careers as an actor and crooner of Big Band classics — has embraced his post-fame arc as a change for the better.
“In this phase I’m in a different chapter,” he says of his stage and film work. “I can feel it. Enough time has passed.
“These are roles I would have liked to have been offered before, but now they’re coming to me.”
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“Art,” for example, an award-winning comedy/drama that casts the amiable thespian as an art collector whose purchase of an expensive painting sparks a debate with two buddies that threatens to end their friendship.
Wait, two buddies?
Given that Drayton is promoting Most as “Ralph Malph on ‘Happy Days,’ ” could “Art” be taken as a fictional simulation of what his sitcom friendships might look like today?
“It’s possible that maybe Richie could have morphed into my character,” he allows, not entirely convinced.
“But that would be the limit. As actors, could the three of us take on those roles? It’s possible, but there might be too much baggage interfering.”
He uses the word “baggage” in a negative way, but as he talks about his TV past, it’s clear he considers his long-ago castmates part of his extended family.
“We had a great working relationship and friendship, all mixed together,” he notes, attributing it to the tone set by the show’s veteran cast and crew.
“It was a very gratuitous coming together, that particular mix. There was some ego, but it was so uncannily smooth because we respected each other. We did become like a family.”
The whole thing could have run off the rails when Fonzie — the leather-jacketed hood played by Henry Winkler — broke out with viewers and stole the show.
“At one point the network wanted it to be called ‘Fonzie’s Happy Days,’ ” recalls Most, after audience demand for The Fonz proved insatiable. “And Henry was the one who said ‘No, we can’t do that. That’s wrong.’
“I remember talking to Ron, who said ‘No, I understand why Henry’s character is becoming what it is and it’s good for the show, and I totally get it,’ so he didn’t have any problems.”
Winkler wasn’t the only breakout star.
Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall, who guested as gum-snapping bottle cappers, spun off into their own series, “Laverne & Shirley,” a move that, 43 years later, would see Williams cast in a Drayton production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Which begs the question, has Drayton’s creative team made it their life’s mission to reunite ABC’s Tuesday-night comedy lineup from 1977?
Most laughs at that one.
“It’s tough to do,” he confides, noting that the passage of time has taken a toll. “There’s a few people not around anymore.”
Having said this, it’s no coincidence that he’s following on the heels of his ‘70s sitcom counterpart.
“I was doing a play with her in New Jersey called ‘Middletown,’ “ he notes. “And she said ‘I’m gonna be in Canada in May doing ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie.’
“She was connected with the director of this production (Max Reimer), who knew I’d been working with her and asked her about me, so there’s this whole kind of full-circle connection.”
Given the tight-knit community of former sitcom actors, who can we expect next on the Drayton stage — Marilu Henner from “Taxi”? The guy who played Squiggy on “Laverne & Shirley”?
“If John Ritter was still with us, he would have been the next,” smiles Most of his departed comrade from ABC’s “Three’s Company.”
He pauses, aware Drayton’s recruitment policies also attracted, a couple years back, the guy who played Norm on “Cheers.”
“But George Wendt was on NBC,” he cracks. “So that doesn’t fly.”
He doesn’t say it. He doesn’t have to.
But it’s clear from his winning Ralph Malph grin that whatever “it” is, Don Most — don’t call him “Donny” — has still got it.
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