In the 1970s, the coolest decade in entertainment was the 1950s. Grease packed the house on Broadway. American Graffiti cruised into theaters and Happy Days became one of TV’s most popular shows.

Created by Garry Marshall, the Milwaukee-set sitcom introduced the world to all-American high schooler Richie Cunningham, his family and his close circle of friends. “So many fans have written to me over the years and said they wished they had a family like ours,” Marion Ross, 95, who played Mrs. C., tells Closer. “We were a family off stage as well as on stage.”

Before Happy Days, Marion, Ron Howard, 69, and Anson Williams, 74, appeared together in a TV pilot set in the 1950s called “Love and the Television Set,” which aired as a segment on Love, American Style. “I was in awe of Ron because he was already a star,” recalls Anson to Closer. Having spent his childhood on The Andy Griffith Show, Ron admits he had mixed feelings about committing to another TV series, but he had personal reasons for saying yes. “I had a horrible draft number,” Ron confides. “I really didn’t want to go to Vietnam, and I didn’t want to go to Canada.” The actor hoped to qualify for a work deferment as the star of a TV show. “[The pilot] didn’t sell, and another few months later they did away with the draft, so I dodged that bullet,” he says.

The success of the film American Graffiti prompted ABC to rework the 1950s-set pilot. Ron and Anson took new screen tests, but they had competition from Robbie Benson, who tried out for the Richie role, and Don Most, who auditioned to play Potsie Weber. “I had just turned 20,” Don, 70, tells Closer, recalling the audition process as “a very long, very emotionally draining day.” In the end, Garry kept Ron as Richie and Anson as earnest Potsie, but he liked Don so much that loudmouth pal Ralph Malph was created for him.

The cast was largely set by the time Henry Winkler tried out for Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. “I moved to L.A. in 1973 and two weeks later went to Paramount Studios for an audition — with hair down to my shoulders and a gigantic sweat patch because I was petrified,” Henry recalls. “I walked in and said six lines. I guess I did them pretty well because I got the part.”

Happy Days wasn’t an immediate success. A retooling in the second season eliminated Richie’s basketball-playing older brother, Chuck, emphasized more broad comedy and made greaser Fonzie a main character. “People don’t remember we were almost canceled a year-and- a-half in,” says Anson. “That’s when they took a shot at changing the whole tone of the show. We had no idea that Fonzie was going to break out as a character.”

Fonzie And Mrs C on 'Happy Days'
Fotos International/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Henry, who wasn’t allowed to wear a leather jacket in the first season for fear of the character scaring off viewers, brought his own magic to the role. “It was unbelievably hard to be cool in puce,” he jokes of Fonzie’s original cotton jacket. He tried to avoid greaser stereotypes, like cigarette packs tucked in shirt sleeves and combing his pompadour in a mirror. “I walked up, held up my comb, then went: ‘Heeeey … that’s perfect, I don’t need to comb,’” recalls Henry. “That moment defined the Fonz. I got the ‘heeeey’ and the ‘whoaaa’ from my favorite sport at the time: horse riding.”

By 1976, Happy Days had become the No. 1 show on TV. “There’s no way it wouldn’t change your life,” says Don. “We couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. At first it’s exciting, but then you realize it’s 24/7. It’s not like you hit the light switch and it turns off.”

The solid core of camaraderie that producer Garry Marshall built helped the actors remain united. In addition to spending hours a day together on set, the cast played on a Happy Days softball team. “Garry thought it was very important for the Happy Days guys to become a team,” explains Anson. For Henry, who had never played ball, it was a big challenge. “Ron bought me my first mitt, and Anson bought me my first bat for my birthday,” says the actor, who eventually became a pretty good pitcher.

Famous on TV since age 6, Ron also helped his costars navigate first-time fame by his own level-headed example. “Ron was so mature, so professional and had such lack of ego, we kind of followed him,” admits Anson, who also credits Henry for not allowing the popularity of Fonzie to go to his head. “We had these crappy dressing rooms on the set — literally, plywood with shag carpeting and a chair. When Henry could own half the lot, he said, ‘Nope. I’m keeping the dressing room.’”

Despite everyone’s best intentions, when the president of ABC suggested changing the show’s title to Fonzie’s Happy Days, feelings got hurt. “The press kept saying, ‘What’s it like? Do you feel like you’ve become a secondhand citizen on your own show?’” recalls Ron, who admits he was both disappointed and angry. “The executives, studio heads, network heads, you know, they started treating me with a lot of disrespect from a business standpoint [and] in terms of interaction.”

The final straw snapped at Christmas 1979 when the network gifted Henry with a fancy VCR player and gave Ron a new wallet. “[Ron] told me how disrespected the network had made him feel — financially and personally,” Henry relates. “‘You know,’ he said, ‘ABC just really doesn’t care about me.’’’

In 1980, Ron quit Happy Days. His character, Richie, left to join the Army, although he returned for guest appearances in the final season. Don also left that year. “I was concerned about getting locked into that one character,” he explains. “I knew I wanted to try to do many, many different kinds of roles.”

Happy Days ended its phenomenal 11-season, 255-episode run in the summer of 1984. Today, the cast remain close, although Tom Bosley, who played patriarch Howard Cunningham, passed away in 2010 and Erin Moran, best known as younger sister Joanie, died of throat cancer at age 56 in 2017.

“I’m probably closest to Henry,” says Marion. “He calls me to check in every so often.” She gifted the blue dress with the white collar she famously wore as Mrs. C. to a museum in her hometown, Albert Lea, Minnesota.

Don, who has continued as an actor and a singer (his latest CD is called New York High), looks back on those years with affection. “There are so many memories, but what sticks out to me is the camaraderie,” he says, noting that he and Anson remain the best of friends. Don was even best man at Anson’s wedding last May.

Of course, Ron became an Academy Award-winning director, while Henry, who published his memoir last October, won his first Emmy in 2018 for Barry. “It’s taken me from there to today to taste who I knew I wanted to be as an actor,” says the star, who kept one of Fonzie’s five leather jackets from the show.

Nearly 50 years after Happy Days premiered, it’s still popular on streaming services. “When we went on in ’74, it was the 1950s show, so it’s always been old,” says Anson, who is directing the play Crazy Mama, premiering in Bethel, New York, this April. “Happy Days reflects the basics of human nature: what we want in our lives and the family and friendships that nurture us along the way. That’s why I think this show is evergreen and will affect generations to come in a positive, wonderful, relatable way.”