Anson Williams got caught in a huge thunderstorm on the afternoon of his audition for Happy Days. “I drove this little funky Corvair, and it conked out. I had to wait two hours for Auto Club, so I was hours late for the audition and soaking wet!” he recalls to Closer. “At that point, I thought, ‘Just forget it. It’s done.’ But something inside me said, ‘No, go.’”
Of course, Anson, 72, went to the audition and won the role of best friend Potsie Weber on the beloved 1950s-era comedy. He and costars Marion Ross and Tom Bosley, who played Marion and Howard Cunningham, were the only actors to play main characters on the show through all 11 seasons.
Anson went on to become the director of other successful TV shows, including Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, Lizzie McGuire and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. He admits he could never have done it without Happy Days. “It really opened up the door,” Anson says.
When you were growing up in Los Angeles, did you always want to act?
I think it was always there — like deep, deep inside. When I was 18, it just hit me so hard. I felt inside that it would work.
Was your family supportive of your desire to go into show business?
Oh, they almost kicked me out. It was, “Are you out of your mind?” So I walked out as an 18-year-old with nothing. I didn’t know anybody. But it just shows [what you can do] when you have that fire in your stomach. I feel that we are directed places if we are just open enough to feel it. That’s what happened in my life.
It took a long time for Happy Days to get on the air, didn’t it?
Yes, we did the pilot, but it didn’t sell. But a year later, American Graffiti had come out, Grease was huge [on Broadway], and ABC decided to do it. They added important new characters like Fonzie and Ralph. Ron [Howard] and I had to screen-test again. They were afraid we might be too old!
Too old just a year later?
Yes. And they were trying to cast Joanie. I was doing a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, Lisa, Bright and Dark. Kay Lenz was in it, and her little sister was played by a beautiful little actress called Erin Moran. When I got back, I said, “Have you interviewed Erin?” They hadn’t. So they brought Erin in and they hired her.
How did sudden fame affect the cast?
We were all very involved in doing the show, we weren’t needing the icing of fame. Like Henry [Winkler]. He became huge. If he wanted half the studio in his dressing room, he could have had it. But we all had these crappy, plywood dressing rooms with no bathroom. Henry never asked anyone to change it. He knew that if he did that, it would change the whole dynamic of the show. Henry was incredibly humble. Ron, who was already a star, was very much like that, too. It was all about work ethic, not ego.
That must have been an incredible learning experience for you.
Yes. [Happy Days creator] Garry Marshall was just the kindest, most beautiful man. He cared so much about us. He said to me, “You want to be a director? All of Paramount Studios is your college. I will open up everything for you.” It was like a live master class.
Do you think of yourself primarily as a director now?
Oh, definitely. Director, producer, writer, entrepreneur. Acting is pretty limited. I’m definitely more behind the camera now.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I used to be a glider pilot. In 1980, I wrote the story for Skyward, [a TV movie] starring Bette Davis. Ron directed it. I had a fear of flying, and the pilots we used in the movie convinced me to beat my fear by sailplaning. I was able to fly solo by the end of the show. So, it became my hobby.
Did any of your five daughters follow you into showbiz?
Gab is interested in architecture. Olivia is degree black belt — actually four of my daughters are black belts. I thought it was very important for them to have that confidence. Because the one thing about getting a black belt is you can’t buy it, you have to earn it.
You also have three grandsons from your oldest daughter, Hannah. What is your wish for them?
It’s like passing the torch. I just want them all to be balanced and happy, givers not takers. I grew up in a house with no money, but I felt secure. Now, the world is in such a precarious state. I feel bad about what we are leaving them.
You recently participated in a benefit for the Hollywood Museum. Why is charity work important to you?
It’s always been paramount to me to be able to give back. Celebrities, even an old icon like me, we still have fans out there. It’s nice to use your platform to help bring awareness to the greater good. I’ve always been motivated by my uncle Dr. Heimlich.
Dr. Heimlich of the famous Heimlich maneuver to stop people from choking?
Yes, he’s actually my second cousin, but I’ve called him uncle since I was born. He was visiting me on the set of Happy Days early on and was very frustrated because the Heimlich maneuver wasn’t getting the PR it needed.
Did you help him?
A call came from The Merv Griffin Show. Somebody dropped out of that show that evening, and they wanted to know if I was available to just come on. So I sat next to Merv and gave an elevator pitch for the Heimlich maneuver. Two weeks later, Dr. Heimlich was on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
That’s a great story.
I always say, if Garry Marshall hadn’t created Happy Days, and if Henry Winkler and everyone hadn’t been so great on it, there would have been no call to me to go on Merv Griffin. So Happy Days is a major reason for the use of the Heimlich maneuver today.