Tom Bosley, Mr. Cunningham of “Happy Days,” died Tuesday, Oct. 19, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., of lung cancer. He was 83.
In a varied career ranging from stage, TV and films roles to pitchman for Glad trashbags, Bosley will perhaps be rest remembered for his role as Howard Cunningham, garnering two Emmy noms for the thesp.
Ironically, Bosley almost rejected the role that would define his career.
“After rereading the pilot script, I changed my mind because of a scene between Howard Cunningham and Richie,” he told the Associated Press in 1986. “The father-son situation was written so movingly, I fell in love with the project.”
The beloved father of Richie Cunningham on the ABC sitcom that ran from 1974-84 wasn’t always wise but was endearing. A TV Guide survey in 2004 ranked Bosley’s Howard Cunningham No. 9 on its list of “The 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.”
The Chicago native served in the Navy during WWII. After the war he was studying at De Paul U. in Chicago when he made his stage debut in Canterbury Players’ production of “Our Town.” Moving to New York, Bosley studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio but struggled to find roles, at one time working as a doorman at Tavern on the Green.
His breakthrough came when he played New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the Broadway tuner “Fiorello!,” for which he won a Tony in 1959. For two years, Bosley stopped the show every night when he sang in several languages, depicting LaGuardia during the years that the future mayor worked at New York’s Ellis Island, aiding arriving immigrants.
Heading to Hollywood Bosley appeared in a number of series from “Diagnosis: Unknown” to “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “The Dupont Show of the Week.” But it wasn’t until “Happy Days” that he made his mark.
“He provided a positive influence over all of the young actors on ‘Happy Days.’ Audiences will never forget the lovable Howard Cunningham who made us laugh on Tuesday nights,” said “Happy Days” creator Garry Marshall in a statement. “Comedy will miss him.”
After “Happy Days,” he portrayed Sheriff Amos Tupper in Angela Lansbury’s long-running series “Murder, She Wrote,” appearing in 19 episodes from 1984-88. He starred in his own series, “Father Dowling Mysteries,” from 1987-91; he sued Viacom in 1991 seeking $437,000 plus interest in a breach-of-contract suit over payments for “Father Dowling.”
Bosley had recurring roles in dozens of series, including “The Debbie Reynolds Show,” “The Sandy Duncan Show,” “Love, American Style,” “The Streets of San Francisco” and “The Love Boat.” He guest starred on skeins ranging from “Bonanza” to “Bewitched,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Get Smart.”
Bosley made his feature film debut as a suitor for Natalie Wood in 1963’s “Love With a Proper Stranger,” which also toplined Steve McQueen. Variety’s review called his performance as a jittery lover “fine supporting work.”
Other pic credits include “The World of Henry Orient” and “Divorce American Style.”
He returned to the stage in 1994 for the tuner version of “Beauty and the Beast,” playing Belle’s father on Broadway, and played Herr Schultz in the 2002 revival of “Cabaret.”
With his distinctive baritone, he was popular as a voice actor for such toons as “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” “The World of David the Gnome” and “Tangerine Bear.” He narrated TV docu series “That’s Hollywood” and holiday spesh “The Stingiest Man in Town.”
In later years, Bosley became a pitchman for Glad trashbags as well as D-Con and Sonic Drive-In, among other products.
Bosley served on a number of boards for the Screen Actors Guild and on the SAG Foundation Board.
His first wife, dancer Jean Eliot, died in 1978. Survivors include his wife of nearly 30 years, producer-thesp Patricia; daughter Amy Baer, CBS Films prexy and CEO; two stepdaughters; seven grandchildren; and a brother.
Donations may be made to the American Cancer Society.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)