When life meant happy days for Erin Moran

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – “There is a lot of pressure. You’ve got to be thin. You’ve got to look pretty. You’ve got to look good. There’s a lot of competition, There’s too much to worry about.” That was “Happy Days” star Erin Moran speaking to me in 1982 just before the launch of “Joanie Loves Chachi”.

The actress has died from cancer aged 56 after a difficult adult life following her childhood stardom that began with commercials and a regular role on the U.S. drama series “Daktari” when she was 6 years-old.

She was in a James Garner and Debbie Reynolds picture titled “How Sweet It Is!” (1968), had guest roles on popular sitcoms of the period such as “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and “My Three Sons” and she was a regular on “The Don Rickles Show” (1972).

Moran, who was 21 when I interviewed her, had starred as Joanie Cunningham on one of the era’s most popular shows since she was 13.  She did not appear to be daunted by the challenges and pitfalls of early attention.

“I am a competitor but not in that respect. It’s too much for me,” she said. “I’m too kicked back for that. I do get crazy but not a lot. I’m a Libra so I weigh things up. I think about it and get down to me. What’s important … letting this thing ruin me or to be happy? I just want to be happy. That’s my motto. That’s all I want to be, is happy.”

The late Garry Marshall, who wrote and produced “How Sweet It Is!” (with Jerry Belson), told me: “I found this little girl who was missing three teeth in the front of her mouth and I hired her for the film. I thought, ‘This little girl has very good timing for such a little person.’ That was it. A few years later when we were casting ‘Happy Days’, she came along and she had teeth this time. She looked a little different but she still had that instinct for timing with no fear. Many kids have fear and get inhibited.”

Moran was not in the first pilot, which did not sell, but she was cast in the second along with Henry Winkler and Ron Howard. “She’s spent 9 years with us. I watched her grow up. I watched graduate from school on the Paramount lot and I watched her become a young lady,” Marshall said.

He created “Joanie Loves Chachi”, he told me, because of his love of sports and he used a farm-team system to develop his shows. Scott Baio (pictured with Moran below) had joined “Happy Days” as Chachi in Season 5 and later became Joanie’s long-time steady. They both had singing talent and Marshall decided that music would be the key to a new spinoff following “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy”.

“Just to say ‘here are two good actors, let’s make another show’ is not quite enough for me,” he told me. “But they both sang so well and we kind of let them break that in on ‘Happy Days’, and that plus their acting ability makes it worth doing another show. I just hope it works.”

It didn’t. “Joanie Loves Chachi” lasted 17 episodes and the two performers returned to the original show for the final season. After “Happy Days” wound down in 1984, Moran’s career floundered with a few appearances on “The Love Boat” and sporadic roles on shows such as “Murder, She Wrote” and “ “Diagnosis Murder”. She died on April 22, survived by her second husband, Steven Fleischmann, with whom reportedly she had fallen upon hard times.

Back in 1982, those dark clouds seemed far away although there were times on “Happy Days” that were difficult, she said: “I always played two or three years younger and that was hard from the start. I wanted to grow up but the character wasn’t growing as fast I was. Everything was awkward for me but it worked out. The thing with Joanie is she’s just an all-around normal American girl. Nothing’s unusual with her, nothing’s outrageous. I don’t have anyone approaching me about taking off my clothes or doing pinups. It’s a family show and I don’t have those offers. With Valerie Bertinelli (“One Day at a Time”), it’s a different story. She’s got a lot more maturity and it’s modern.”

Competition for roles didn’t bother her anyway, she told me: “Competing with other girls; I stopped doing that. I used to when I was younger but I can’t. I just can’t. If I start worrying about that then it gets crazy. It doesn’t get you anywhere. One day, I’d like to get a real, good, meaty role. Someone like Sally Field, I look at her work, at her movies, and I just think, ‘God!’ When Natalie Wood died [1981], that killed me. I’ve always wanted to meet that lady. She’s my favourite. If I idolised anyone, I idolised her. This is what I look forward to; those types of roles. Those types of characters, because it’s pretty close to where I am and what I think I can achieve.”

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