'Happy Days' dad Tom Bosley dead at 83

Actor Tom Bosley attends the 'Happy Days' 30th Anniversary Reunion at the Museum of Television and Radio on January 27, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California.
Actor Tom Bosley attends the 'Happy Days' 30th Anniversary Reunion at the Museum of Television and Radio on January 27, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Tom Bosley, whose long acting career was highlighted by his hugely popular role as the understanding father on television's nostalgic, top-rated 1970s comedy series "Happy Days," died Tuesday. He was 83.

Bosley died of heart failure at a hospital near his Palm Springs home. Bosley's agent, Sheryl Abrams, said he was also battling lung cancer.

TV Guide ranked Bosley's "Happy Days" character, Howard Cunningham, at No. 9 on its list of the "50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time" in 2004. The show debuted in 1974 and ran for 11 seasons.

"Tom's insight, talent, strength of character and comic timing made him a vital central figure in the 'Happy Days' experience. A great father and husband, and a wonderful artist, Tom led by example, and made us all laugh while he was doing it," said a statement from Ron Howard, who played Bosley's son, Richie Cunningham.

"My last conversations with Tom reflected the love of life and peace of mind that he always maintained throughout his full and rewarding life. I miss him already," Howard said.

"He was my husband for ll years and the father of the company in many ways," said Marion Ross, who played Marion Cunningham on the show. "He was so smart he could fix the end of a joke or a scene on the spot. We made a perfect couple. I played picolo to his tuba."

After "Happy Days" ended, Bosley went on to a recurring role in "Murder, She Wrote" as Sheriff Amos Tupper. He also was the crime-solving priest in television's "The Father Dowling Mysteries," which ran from 1989 to 1991.

When he was first offered the costarring role in "Happy Days," a series about teenage life in the 1950s, he turned it down.

"After rereading the pilot script," he recalled in a 1986 interview, "I changed my mind because of a scene between Howard Cunningham and Richie. The father/son situation was written so movingly, I fell in love with the project."

Propelled by the nation's nostalgia for the simple pleasures of the 1950s, "Happy Days," which debuted in 1974, slowly built to hit status, becoming television's top-rated series by its third season.

It made a star of Henry Winkler, who played hip-talking, motorcycle-riding hoodlum Arthur "Fonzi" Fonzarelli, helped launch the career of Howard and led to other television spinoffs.

Although "Happy Days" brought him his widest fame, Bosley had made his mark on Broadway 15 years before when he turned in a Tony Award-winning performance in the title role in "Fiorello!"

His Broadway triumph depicted the life of New York's colorful reformist mayor of the 1930s and '40s, Fiorello La Guardia. For two years, Bosley stopped the show every night when he sang in several languages, depicting La Guardia during the years the future mayor worked at New York's Ellis Island, aiding arriving immigrants.

The play won a Pulitzer Prize and Bosley received the Tony for best actor in a musical.

After failing to duplicate his success in "Fiorello!," Bosley moved to Hollywood in 1968. He would not return to Broadway until 1994 when he originated the role of Belle's father in Disney's production of "Beauty and the Beast."

In Hollywood, the rotund character actor found steady work appearing in the occasional movie and as a regular on weekly TV shows starring Debbie Reynolds, Dean Martin, Sandy Duncan and others.

During the 1990s, Bosley toured in "Beauty and the Beast" and "Show Boat," playing Captain Andy in the latter.

Bosley made only a handful of theatrical movies. Among them: "Love With the Proper Stranger," "Divorce American Style," "The Secret War of Henry Frigg," "Yours, Mine and Ours."

Bosley capitalized on his fame from "Happy Days" to serve as a pitchman for GLAD trash bags along with other products.

Born in Chicago in 1927, Bosley served in the Navy before returning to his hometown to study at DePaul University. Intrigued with acting, he enrolled at the Radio Institute of Chicago and began appearing in radio dramas.

Bosley married dancer Jean Eliot in 1962 and the couple had one child, Amy. Two years after his wife's death in 1978, Bosley married actress-producer Patricia Carr, who had three daughters from a previous marriage.

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Associated Press Writer Robert Jablon contributed.

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