Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Let's Talk Chuck - The Lost Cunningham Child





This article is part of Classic TV Blog Association's Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon. Click the image on the right. There are a lot of wonderful articles all about some great shows. Read them now.


Let's Talk Chuck
One of the joys of Classic TV is watching a character develop over many episodes. Seeing a vaguely sketched in, stereotypical even, person develop into someone that we really love as we view their actions across time. The exact opposite joy is watching a show introduce a character (usually at the start of the series) and for whatever reason getting rid of them or phasing them out. Some prime examples are: Coco the House Boy on The Golden Girls. All those young ladies in the first season of The Facts of Life. And, a favorite of mine, Oliver Wendell Douglas' mother in the first couple seasons of Green Acres. All characters who became superfluous within the shows they were part of. But, there is one character that looms above all others in the history of television: Chuck Cunningham. The eldest of the Cunningham children on the long-running and very popular sitcom Happy Days.

Happy Days began life with a proto-pilot segment on Love, American Style originally called "Love and the Television Set." Ron Howard played Richie Cunningham middle child in the super-WASPy Cunningham family. The father was Howard. The mother was Marion. The oldest son was Chuck, currently attending a nearby college. The youngest child was the precocious wise-cracker Joanie. It was set in the early 1950s. The story is about the family acquiring their first TV set and Richie using that to get a girl. It's charming but not that great.

From out of it, arose Happy Days. A series focused on Richie Cunningham, All-American teen, and the time period was moved up to the mid-1950s when, for really the first time ever, a teen generation had their own culture. Richie, with his best friend Potsie, spend most of the first two seasons trying to get dates, trying to get a car and getting mixed up in general shenanigans. The family is mainly supporting cast at this point. It really is all about Teen Richie and Friends.

The show itself was a reaction to the Norman Lear sitcoms that had ruled the roost for the first half of the 1970s. After Vietnam and Watergate and with the approach of the Bicentennial, nostalgia became all the rage. Witness the success of American Graffiti, starring Ron Howard. Lear's sitcoms were shot on cheap video in front of a live audience to give the shows a more immediate feeling. Happy Days would be shot with one camera and utilize a laugh track so it looked more like an old-style sitcom. The plan was to project the viewer back to a perceived "Golden Age" in America.

The Cunninghams are a nice family, living in Milwaukee. Even the local hood, a character called The Fonz, is charming. Everyone has their place in this world, except for one character: Chuck. Chuck never quite fits into the framework of the show. Although, in theory, he should. There is a strange feeling, when watching, that the producers lost interest in him almost immediately. But, before we go there let's visit with Chuck and his appearances on the show, starting with "Love and the Television Set."

 Chuck 1

Chuck is seen here at the dinner table. He is in college, possibly for basketball. It is implied that his grades aren't so hot. He doesn't look incredibly jock-like and the main joke they give him is that he's taking a Philosophy course that is making him question whether he should say Grace or not. Howard gives him a look. It's not a funny joke but it does show how 1950s this family is. Not say Grace? Not believe in God? Who does that? Later on, Chuck is seen returning to the dorms where he lives. He passes right through this segment like a vapor, touching no one and accomplishing little.

  Chuck 1 with a woman from a Fellini film,
some old lady and Joanie (!)

For the rest of his appearances, I did what I call The Chuck Hunt. I scanned the 16 episodes of Season 1 and the first 11 episodes of Season 2 looking for Chuck appearances. I knew that his final appearance was in "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas" so I stopped there. My findings?

Chuck is in 6 of the 16 episodes of Season 1.
Chuck is in 2 of the first 11 episodes of Season 2.
(As mentioned, I did a scan of the episodes. If I missed an appearance, feel free to leave a comment and I will correct my findings. Plus, I didn't count the original pilot, which was re-worked into the first episode "All the Way.")

Chuck is also played by two actors in the show. Three total, counting Love, American Style.

The first Chuck is played by Ric Carrott.

The second Chuck is played by Gavan O'Herlihy, who has been in a lot of things including the brilliant Death Wish 3.

Telling stories about Charles Bronson

The third Chuck is Randolph Roberts, who I know best as the disturbed young man in Richard L. Bare's Wicked, Wicked.

 That's a great face

Going though Chuck 2's appearances, it's surprising how little he does throughout the first season. In the episode "All The Way," it is established that he goes to college. Lives on (or near) campus. He comes home for free meals and to have Mom do his laundry. He's great at basketball but not so good at his other classes. He looks like he could be Richie's older brother. He also has a very jock feel to him. One gets the sense that he beats up nerds and probably beat up Richie a bit during their younger days.

 Eating...

 and basketball

His next appearance is in the third episode "Richie's Cup Runneth Over." Chuck is in the house dribbling his basketball and it's annoying Howard. That's about it. He does seem to communicate through basketball dribbling, which is semi-charming but not much of an appearance. In the next episode, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?", we see the three kids out on the driveway. Joanie is twirling her baton. Richie and Chuck are playing basketball. One imagines that this is probably what it was like all the time before Chuck went to college, wherever that is. It's a lovely scene.

 Communication through dribbling

The Cunningham kids at play

In "The Deadly Dares," Chuck eats a big sandwich. He also talks with Richie briefly about hazing, as Richie is about to get inducted into some sort of gang kind of thing. In "Skin Game," we learn that Chuck is going to change his free throw from overhand to underhand because it looks better for the fans. And, Richie and Chuck have what is the closest thing to a real brother-to-brother chat. Almost. Richie needs to talk to Chuck and I perked up. The Wisdom of Chuck is about to appear! But, Richie just wants to borrow Chuck's ID to get in a strip club. For every free throw Chuck makes, the writers miss an opportunity to develop his character.

 Maybe underhand free throws are a bad idea?

 In the background, Chuck eats a big sandwich

The family eats bark soup in "Give the Band a Hand." Joanie made it. It's a Junior Chipmunk thing. Everyone dislikes it...  but Chuck. So, we can add "Likes bark soup" to his character description. And that, as far as I could see, seems to be the final appearance of Chuck 2.

 The final appearance (barring closing credits) of Chuck 2

 I WISH that was Chuck 2!

Moving onto Season 2, Chuck 3 appears in the first episode. This is a very different Chuck. While he's still presented as kind of dim, he has flashes of dry humor that are either meant to imply that Chuck is smarter than everyone thinks or he really is dim. (More about this in a moment.) Chuck 3 is more charming than Chuck 2. He seems less like a jock and also less like Richie's brother. He's, personally, My Favorite Chuck, possibly that comes from being in one of my favorite TV episodes of all time. (More about that in a moment.)

 Chuck 3 makes a grand entrance, with laundry

 Still eating sandwiches

In the season premiere :Richie Moves Out," Richie moves in with Chuck. Mainly so he can get more alone time with his girlfriend, Gloria, played by Linda Purl. (I would have moved out of my parent's house for the same Purl-related reason.) Chuck's place is a pigsty. I believe it's a converted garage. Richie sleeps on a broken sofa bed and tries to tidy up the place. Chuck flunked Marine Biology. He also dribbles his basketball 50 times with each hand before bed. Richie tries to have a night in with his gal but it doesn't go well. Chuck shows up with the basketball team and a blackboard. (Along with the rest of the cast and their girlfriends.) There are a few nice Chuck moments here but, in the end, this is about Richie. So, there's less here than one would hope.

 Livin' With Chuck!

 He can do two things at once: dribbling and shaving

 The Meatheads look on

Chuck's final appearance is in the wonderful "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas?" episode. I won't give a full-on description here because I want to focus on Chuck. He has been absent for 9 episodes and Howard's reaction to seeing him on Christmas Eve mirrors the viewer's reaction. The Christmas tree is in the living room. There is a sock hanging on it. Howard demands to know whose sock it is. and Chuck appears. Howard's face goes kind of blank and he says "Is that you, Chuck?" Even his family is having trouble remembering him.

The final appearance of Chuck begins... 
 Anger
 Confusion
 Sweat Sock Revelation

Chuck is on the periphery of the story but he has several nice moments, including the scene where Joanie bounces a wrapped gift his way. (It's a basketball.) Chuck tells her to be careful with it because it might be fragile. Here's the main moment where I think Chuck is smarter than everyone is giving him credit for. Joanie's reaction implies "What an idiot!" But, Chuck 3's delivery implies a very dry strain of humor. (It happens again when he's talking to the Fonz about burnt out Christmas lights.) Chuck also takes part in the "Getting Mugged By Santa" scene, which you should probably see for yourself.

 "Getting mugged by Santa"

Not as dumb as he seems

The big scene for Chuck, though, is his one and only real conversation with The Fonz. It doesn't go on long but it is very important. Chuck has been checking bulbs on the Christmas tree's string of lights. One has burnt out. The Fonz, who has taken charge of the evening, talks to Chuck about his strategy in finding the burnt out bulb. It's a lovely moment. Chuck holds his own against The Fonz. One could almost see these two possibly becoming friends. But, instead, something else happens.

 The Big Moment

Final appearance of Chuck 3

The Fonz's popularity has been rising. Richie and The Fonz have been becoming better friends. And, The Fonz is being made into the Older Brother that Richie has but is never actually utilized in that way. The Fonz gives Richie advice. He protects Richie. He always has Richie's back. So, as Chuck speaks with The Fonz, one can almost see him being written out of the show before our eyes. (And, at the start of Season 3, Fonzie moves into the Cunningham residence to further cement the Older Brother role.)

Which is worse?
 
Not being invited to the Family Meeting about the bomb shelter...

 ...or not being invited to the Cast Photo for the DVD release.

So, what was all this Chuck stuff about? Why is he in the show if they never really used him? Where did he go?

Obviously, he's in the show because he's a holdover from the Love, American Style episode. The producers probably just ported him over from there. Not really considering how they could use him and, also, not realizing how big The Fonz would get. What's odd to me is that his character consists of a bunch of Dumb Guy jokes, some mention of basketball and that's it. It's not that they didn't know what to do with Chuck. It feels like they discovered, almost immediately, that they didn't have any use for him. They kind of don't really even try to to make the character work.

Part of the problem is that Happy Days, for its first two seasons, has an ensemble cast but is not an ensemble show. It's really all about Richie. No one else gets too much spotlight. And Chuck barely gets any. If Chuck had been there from Season 3 on, when the show became multi-camera and was filmed in front of a live audience and everyone began to get episodes to themselves, then he may have survived and been developed. Heck, Chuck doesn't even have friends to speak of. Richie has a ton of pals. Joanie constantly talks about her friends. Chuck has nothing. Flashes of a character come out every once in a while but no one seemed to care.

The family at play. Chuck emotes over a baton.

What happened to Chuck? There are many theories out there, ranging from the mundane (Chuck simply left Milwaukee and never came back) to the crazy (Chuck was abducted by aliens and there was a Cunningham memory wipe). But, I think a scene from a much later episode shines a light on a theory which I have read about online. The scene comes in the Series Finale "Passages." Joanie marries Chachi. Howard delivers a speech to the assembled. And in the speech, he very specifically says how proud he and Marion are now that their two children are married. Two children. Howard, you have three. I have the DVD evidence to prove it. What is going on? Three words: Witness Protection Program.

On the fascinating blog The Chuck Cunningham Conundrum, the theory is put forward that Chuck witnessed something or took part in something that forced the United States government to send him to another city, with another identity. What was it he saw or did? No one knows. But, it explains why Chuck disappears. And it explains why Howard so steadfastly refuses to mention him at Joanie's wedding. I like this theory. There are 2 things that make me believe it.

1) Chuck had 3 faces. It must be very easy to put a man in Witness Protection when he has three different faces. Who remembers all three? Very few people, I would imagine. You could be sitting next to Chuck Cunningham right now and not even realize it. Heck, Chuck could have been at Joanie's wedding using a fourth face. It's impossible to say.

Pinky Lives!

2) Pinky Tuscadero. When the fourth season began, there was much advance publicity about the Fonz getting a love interest: Pinky Tuscadero. There were commercials aired with her featured prominently. Pinky is in the 1-hour season premiere. She is also in the next episode...  she appears briefly in an episode of Blansky's Beauties...  and she might be in a sketch on The Paul Lynde Halloween Special...  but after that she vanished. Yes, her cousin, Leather, appears in a bunch of episodes. But, Pinky is a memory that is long gone by time the series is over.

Pinky, is that you?
And could the man on the right be Chuck 4?

Could Chuck and Pinky have gotten involved in something too big for themselves and been sent into Witness Protection together? I have no factual evidence but I really think it might be true. Chuck could have blended in anywhere. Pinky, however, might be too conspicuous. She could have gotten plastic surgery. I'm just vamping here but what if...  Chuck changed his face to look like Patrick Duffy. And, Pinky changed her face to look like Suzanne Somers...  and they starred in the sitcom Step by Step together? It's just a thought. One worth pursuing.

Through extensive plastic surgery, Chuck and...
 ...Pinky become...
The Duff and Suzanne Somers?
File this under: Theories worth following up.

In conclusion, Chuck, We Hardly Knew Ye. If I can get personal for one moment, I went away to college at age 18. I had a 16-year-old sister, a 13-year-old brother and a 6-year-old sister. So, I can get inside Chuck's head. His siblings are growing up fast and living their lives and he's not there to see it happen and take part in it. But, at the same time, he's got a whole new life outside of his family, who were his life for 17 years. I can understand Chuck floating in and out of everyone's lives. But, I don't quite understand why the producers simply didn't utilize the character more or at all. Melvin Belvin gets more character development than Chuck, for Heaven's Sake. You know what? I'm going to stand tall by my Step by Step theory and go watch an episode starring one of my all-time favorite actors: Chuck "Patrick Duffy" Cunningham.

Goodbye, dear. Have fun in Dallas.

17 comments:

  1. Surely Leonard Nimoy should have done an "In Search Of...Chuck Cunningham" but his theories couldn't have touched yours! I like "Happy Days" and will be closely watching now for all the various iterations of Chuck which I probably glossed over in my mind in the past! No more, thanks to this awesome post! Wonderful!

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    1. I'm glad you liked it. In Search Of covered Sherlock Holmes, Princess Anastasia and Van Gogh... Why Not Chuck?

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  2. Pinky also appeared in an episode of Starsky and Hutch. She was a Vegas chorus girl pursued by a strangler.

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    1. She was also the star of the Cannon Films awesome-time New Year's Evil. She's great in that. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Throughly enjoyed this well-done post about the disappearing Chuck. I think you hit it on the head with noting that the producers did not realize "how big The Fonz would get." As you have written before, HAPPY DAYS evolved into a TV series very different from the original premise. I guess that Chuck was a casualty of that evolution. I do really like the theory that he's in a witness protection program with Pinky. Maybe that's what happens to all TV characters written out of shows!

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    1. There is a town somewhere in North America where all these written out characters live together... and it's a hilarious place. Glad you liked the article. Chuck incites comment. It's true.

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    2. So that town would have Judy Winslow from Family Matters, Seven from Married with Children, Chrissy Snow, Cindy Snow, the other Patridge family boy.

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  4. First of all, let me get this out of the way: Brilliant.

    And on a serious note, I wanted to say that although I got that Fonz was a big brother type to Richie, I never thought of it in terms of how it affected the Chuck character. It makes total sense, and I feel like a dunce for not getting it the first 10,000 times I watched the series.

    Also, I love your theory. AND I love Pinky. Maybe these two are living in a town nearby. I'll check my local biker/basketball show.

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    1. If you can get a picture of yourself with Witness Protection Chuck & Pinky, I will personally send you a crisp, green $5 bill. If that isn't incentive, I don't know what it is.

      As always, you're too kind! Thank you for the comment, ABN!

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  5. Alas, poor Chuck. This was so much fun to read.

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    1. Thanks, David. I'll tell Chuck you liked it... Uh oh. Forget I said that last thing. Chuck didn't tell me anything when I spoke to him yesterday. Crap. Forget that last part too... Pardon me, the FBI is at my front door. I'll be right back.

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  6. Hilarious, comprehensive history of poor forgotten Chuck! My vague, inaccurate memory was that he was written out of the show almost immediately--it's strange that they kept him around for awhile but never attempted to develop the character. I agree with another commenter that your insight about Fonzie movie into the big brother role is dead on. Great post!

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    1. I'm glad you liked it. Chuck 1 isn't around long enough. Chuck 2 feels a bit like the older brother from The Wonder Years so I'm not charmed. But, Chuck 3 had something... they should have tried to develop him.

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  7. This was hilarious! Step By Step. Too funny! Thanks for a great discussion about Chuck--and everyone's favorite 70s sitcom.

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  8. Every character deserves their moment. It's Chuck's Time. 2015: The Year of Chuck!

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  9. I was surfing for Ric Carrott information and found your commentary. Excellent. Thank you!

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