‘Big Al’ Molinaro, Drive-In Owner From ‘Happy Days,’ Dies At 96

At the age of 96, actor Al Molinaro, best known for his roles as the drive-in owner “Big Al” Delvecchio from Happy Days and Murray the cop on The Odd Couple, died Friday at Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale. Al’s son, Michael Molinaro, said his father died of complications from gallstones, according to the Associated Press.

Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Al Molinaro left for Hollywood in the early 1950s on the advice of a friend. There, he studied acting and landed guest roles on the sitcoms Get Smart, Green Acres, That Girl and Bewitched. By the time Al received his breakthrough, he was a middle-aged man.

“I spent 20 years here before I got anything going,” Molinaro said in an interview with The Kenosha News in 2004.

Al Molinaro and Henry Winkler
Al and "the Fonz" from the 1950s nostalgia sitcom 'Happy Days'

The New York Times reports that through his friendship with Penny Marshall, she introduced Al to her brother, producer Garry Marshall. Marshall hired Al to play Officer Murray Greshler on the TV series, The Odd Couple. The show was based on Neil Simon’s play about roommates who were the opposite of each other and had trouble getting along due to their differences.

Molinaro’s next role was as the drive-in owner and cook of Arnold’s Diner, “Big Al” Delvecchio on Happy Days. The drive-in was eventually renamed Al’s Diner. Al was known for his catchphrase, “Yep-yep-yep-yep…” The nostalgic sitcom took place in the 1950s and starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler. Al joined the show in 1976 and stayed until 1982.

In an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1990, the actor outlined why he couldn’t go on to a career in film, even with movies executive produced by Garry Marshall.

“I can’t work in movies with Garry because I’m so square that I won’t be in a movie that has four-letter words in it. That puts me pretty much totally out of films these days. Garry had a part for me in the first movie he made” — the 1982 comedy ‘Young Doctors in Love’ — but I started reading the scene… and I stopped. He said, ‘You can’t do it, can you?’ I told him, ‘I don’t want to do a movie that I couldn’t watch with my mother if she were still alive.'”

Henry Winkler, who played Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on Happy Days, tweeted a tribute after hearing the news of his former costar’s passing. Younger audiences might remember Winkler better as principal Arthur Himbry in the first Scream film.

Appearing on ABC’s 1992 Happy Days’ Reunion Special, Al defended the show from criticism that it “sentimentalized” the 1950s.

“In the industry, they used to consider us like a bubble-gum show. But I think they overlooked one thing. To the public in America, ‘Happy Days’ was an important show, and I think it was and I think it still is.”

Molinaro’s character married Joanie’s mother and appeared on the Happy Days spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachi, which aired from 1982-83.

In 1987 Molinaro and Anson Williams, who played Potsie on Happy Days, started a Midwestern diner chain, Big Al’s, modeled after the one on the 1950s sitcom.

He also made a brief appearance as his Happy Days character in Weezer’s 1995 music video for “Buddy Holly,” which was directed by Spike Jonze. The music video was set in the drive-in from the classic TV show and also featured edited footage of Henry Winkler’s Fonzie dancing. The band also tweeted a tribute to the late actor.

Weezer bassist Matt Sharp told Entertainment Weekly in 1994, “Al’s the Magic Johnson of acting. When he walks on the set, good players become great.”

Molinaro’s survivors include his second wife Betty, his son, and three grandchildren.

[Image via Twitter]