EVERY TUESDAY NIGHT from 1974-1980, Donny Most appeared in living rooms across America in the iconic television sitcom “Happy Days.”
More than 40 years later, the veteran singer/actor is still trying to shake free from the shadow of the memorable, bubblegum-chewing teenager he portrayed — Ralph Malph, Richie Cunningham’s sweet but clueless wisecracking buddy.
Don’t get him wrong. Most will always be proud of his supporting role in one of the most popular television shows of the 1970s. Ralph Malph's cocky catch-phrase — “I still got it!” — uttered after cracking up Richie and Potsie with one of his cornball jokes, is as memorable to "Happy Days" fans as Fonzie’s “Heyyy!”
But at age 68, Most would prefer to be just as well known for his main passion — singing.
“More and more people are getting to know this but a lot of people still don't: Singing is my first love. I was doing that before acting,’’ he said in an interview last week from his Deerfield Beach hotel, where he was relaxing before a performance in Boca Raton. “I want people to know that.’’
Many people already know that.
More than 50 years after making his professional debut as a 14-year-old crooner in the Catskills, Most is still belting out jazz, swing and big band standards and classics from the American songbook.
He performs in clubs from Los Angeles to New York. He has released several albums, including D Most: Mostly Swinging, and is preparing to release another. Last month, he sang with the Hershey Symphony Orchestra in Hershey, Pa.
But his struggles to reach a wider audience can be blamed on the general public's struggles to reconcile how the guy who so memorably played TV goofball Ralph Malph can sing like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
“It might be harder to get them to come to shows because they go, ‘Well, we don't know him as a singer. It's not like he had a hit record.’ They don't know what to expect, so they might not come to a show,’’ he said.
“But it's also fun because when they do come, they’re so surprised: ‘Holy cow! We didn't know you could sing like this! How come you didn't sing more in ‘Happy Days?’’’
Born in Brooklyn, Most was brought up in a house where his mother played big band and swing albums on the record player. He was 9 when he saw a movie that would serve as, in his words, “the catalyst” for his singing career, “The Jolson Story,” about singer Al Jolson.
Soon after, he discovered the New York radio station WNEW and deejay William B. Williams, who played all the great jazz standards and legends.
“I listened to it every night,’’ he said. “A lot of my friends thought I was weird liking that music because it was looked upon as our parents’ music, our grandparents’ music, but I loved it.’’
He also loved popular music at the time such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. “But in terms of getting on stage and singing, for some reason the other stuff was in my blood,’’ he said.
When he landed his first gig in the Catskills, he was one of seven singers aged 14 to 16. Most was allowed three solos and he often sang “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Ro-Ro-Rolling Along” and “If You Knew Susie.’’
He attended Lehigh University from 1970-73 but didn’t graduate, the result of his decision to spend the summer after his junior year searching for acting jobs in Hollywood.
On his third audition, he caught the eye of ABC television producer Garry Marshall who was putting together a cast of young actors for a comedy set in the 1950s called “Happy Days.”
Most scored the role of class clown Ralph Malph and for the next seven years worked alongside a cast led by Henry Winkler (Fonzie), Ron Howard (Richie) and Anson Williams (Potsie).
After the seventh season, he decided to leave the show, along with Howard.
Most had grown disenchanted with the direction of the scripts, especially the episode in which lather-jacketed Fonzie jumps over a shark on water-skis, prompting the phrase “jumped the shark” for shows that outlive their time.
But that wasn’t the only reason he left.
“I felt I was getting sort of pigeon-holed and typecast and so directly associated with a character who is not anything like what I was like in real life,’’ he said.
”I wanted to be an actor and not just one character. It was very difficult for some time because I was up against that and hitting the brick wall.’’
But he kept plugging away and soon landed parts in television and indie films — from a villain scientist in “Star Trek Voyager” to a TV producer opposite John Malkovich in the movie “The Great Buck Howard.’
He also had a recurring role in the TV show “Glee” and made a cameo on “Family Guy.’’ And he has kept busy on stage, too. On Dec. 12 he finished a nearly month-long run of the play “Middletown” in Coral Gables.
“In the last four or five years, I’ve been busier as an actor than I have in a long time,’’ said Most, who won a best supporting actor award last year from the International Christian Film and Music Festival.
Most and his wife Morgan enjoyed their month-plus stay in South Florida, where they caught up with friends in Boca Raton before returning to Los Angeles.
He looks forward to introducing his singing talents to a wider audience, but he knows his Happy Days connection will be with him forever.
Nearly 40 years after the show ended its run, he said he stays in touch with the cast. He is especially close with Williams (Potsie) and he still hears from Howard (Richie) and Winkler (Fonzie) despite their busy schedules.
And while he continues to focus his energy on music, he is humbled that fans still remember his role on “Happy Days.’’
“Those seven years were incredible. I wouldn’t trade that for anything,’’ he said. “It created roadblocks in some respects but it also opened doors in other respects. All in all, it was a fabulous wonderful time.’’
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