Originally published in 2014 at popcultureaddict.com.
Performance is something that runs through Don Most’s blood. Throughout the past five decades it is something Don has proved again and again in each step he takes along the pop culture journey. The world first got to know him as Donny Most in the role of Ralph Malph on the iconic 70’s sit-com Happy Days. Under his red locks and through his freckled face, Don was the wise cracking member of the Happy Days gang. One of the most successful television shows of all time, Don had his face on everything from action figures to animated programs where he and Anson “Potsie” Webber played sidekicks to Ron Howard’s character Richie Cunningham and hung out with Henry Winkler’s enigmatic character, The Fonz. But when Don Most left Happy Days in 1980, marking the end of the classic era of the series, he often found himself sitting in the shadow of Ralph, preventing him from getting the kind of acting roles that he wanted. As a result, Don Most had to reinvent himself and his career. Between taking guest starring roles on favorites like Love Boat, CHIP’s, Murder She Wrote and Baywatch, Don turned to voice acting, heater and directing as a way to continue a career in show business.
Although still recognized as Ralph Malph today, with time distancing himself from his Happy Days character, Don has been popping back on the pop culture radar again. Recently taking a reoccurring role on Glee as Jayma Mays’ father, Rusty Pillsbury, Don has made appearances on Bones and Men of a Certain Age and appeared in the independent films Chez Upshaw and Campin’ Buddies.
Now Don is turning another corner in his career by putting his focus in a new surprising venture that has taken fans by surprise. Don Most has put together his own musical night club act, Singin’ and Swingin’. Backed his own band and performing some of the great jazz classics from the American song book, Don Most has been taking his act to clubs from New York to LA, singing the songs that he loves and getting a warm reception from audiences. Catching Don on the road between gigs, Don revealed to me that while we think of him as an actor, he really entered show business through song as a teenager. Music is still something that has a strong hold on his heart, and now he is bringing the music he loves to his fans.
Sam Tweedle: I was looking at a video today from one of your Swingin’ and Singing’ shows that you have been putting together.
Don Most: Alright. Cool!
Sam: When did you start Singin’ and Swingin’, and what made you go into such a different direction than fans expect from you?
Don: The first show was in July at a jazz club out here in LA called Vitellos. Three months before that we started working with a musical director. The real origins of this is that I used to sing before I started acting.
Sam: I didn’t know that.
Don: Yeah. Way back when I was very young, from the age of fourteen and fifteen years old, I became part of this nightclub revue of eight kids in that same age range. We were in a nightclub act that performed in the nightclubs of the hotels in the Catskill Mountains. This was in the summer of ’68 that I did it. So I always loved that kind of music. The great jazz standards and swing and big band. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Bobby Darren. Especially Darren. I don’t know why it took me this long to do this. I was caught up in acting for all those years, and I did some directing as well, so the music was just on the back burner for a long long time. More recently it started tugging at me. I started playing around with it because, with the technology today, you are able to do things that you couldn’t do before. I would take songs and put it through a software program, and it would remove the vocal and I would have these incredible tracks of Nelson Riddle and Billy May arrangements that were done for Sinatra or Bobby Darren. I could sing to them and record it. So I started playing around with them and I was having just a blast. I was like a kid in a candy store with this music. Everyone I played it for would be going “Wow. This is great. You need to do something with this.” So, I started realizing that this is what is in my blood. It has been since I was very young. So it comes very naturally to me.
Sam: How is the audience reception to the shows? Are they digging it?
Don: Oh my God, yeah. They’re loving it. We just did a show in New York City at a really great club called 54 Below and we sold out. It was a great show and they’ve asked me to come back and do it again on a Saturday night right after Christmas. So, I’m going to do it there, and Vitello’s is going to have me back. I did another club called Catalina’s out here in LA, and I’m doing a show at a club called Rockwell’s. It’s really picking up steam.
Sam: I remember Anson Williams doing all the singing on Happy Days. The only time I remember seeing you sing on TV was when you played a heavy metal shock rocker on CHiP’s. That, of course, was a whole different kind of thing.
Don: Yeah. That’s not what I do now. That was really fun to do that tough. I get a lot of people writing me about that episode.
Sam: Your character in that episode, Moloch, was a blatant rip off of Gene Simmons from KISS. Did you ever get any feedback from Gene or any members of KISS for that performance?
Don: I never did. No. I never heard from anybody associated from KISS. I don’t know why.
Sam: Was that your real singing voice in that episode of CHIP’s?
Don: No. You know, I was supposed to sing on that, but a couple days before the show I came down with a bit of a cold and my voice was not really great. They said to me that if I wasn’t comfortable, they’d get someone else to do it and I could just lip sync. I was planning to do it, but I didn’t. I actually sang on two episodes of Happy Days but, again, it wasn’t the kind of music that I’m doing now. This is a blast, and I’m loving it and can’t wait to get on the stage and just keep doing it. I’m really into getting the right arrangements and the right band.
Sam: Take me back and tell me how you originally got into the entertainment industry in the first place.
Don: Well, I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. When I was nine years old, I saw The Jolson Story. It had a real influence on me, and it was on this thing called “Million Dollar Movie” in New York where they would show these movies every night for a week twice a night. I went and saw it ten times during the week, and then four times on the weekend. So, I watched it fourteen times in a row. I was crazy over it. So I was really into Al Jolson for a while. I liked singing his music and doing him as a kid. So it wasn’t until I was thirteen or fourteen that I let my parents know that I wanted to pursue singing and, maybe, acting. So, through some friends they found a school in Manhattan that catered to kids that wanted to do this sort of thing. It was through that school that the head of the school, Charlie Roe, picked me to be part of a professional troupe that he put together. But then I took sort of a turn and, after the summer performing in the Catskills, at my father’s suggestion, I geared away from singing and concentrated on acting. So we found a workshop that was much more serious about acting and I studied there for a while. The teacher there introduced me to a manager, and she signed me on and introduced me to agents. I started going on auditions primarily for commercials.
Sam: I’ve seen your Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial many times.
Don: I did that with Robby Benson when I was eighteen. We were both from New York. I did a lot of commercials. A whole bunch. I was going to college and doing theater in college. But I wasn’t going out for anything other than commercials. Every now and again a TV audition or a theater audition, but they were few and far between. So I wound up going to LA after my junior year in college and spent the summer there. I was able to get a good agent through some of my connections in New York and they started sending me out and I started landing some guest starring roles on TV pretty quickly.
Sam: Now during the first season of Happy Days, much like Henry Winkler, the character Ralph Malph was not considered a regular cast role. Ralph moved from the background into the forefront.
Don: Absolutely. That was the case. Henry Winkler and I were peripheral characters in the first season, but they quickly started evolving. My character started becoming more integral and of course so did Henry’s character. That continued into the second season, and especially by the third season Ralph became one of the gang, and Fonzie became the star of the show. So, yes, both of our characters really grew and became much more in the forefront.
Sam: Did you have a lot of room to develop the role of Ralph yourself?
Don: Oh yeah. Definitely. Our director was a brilliant man named Jerry Paris, who played the next-door neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He also directed most of those Dick Van Dyke Shows. We were lucky to have Jerry and we got along great. So we were always bringing him extra things that weren’t in the script and he loved it, and he would get spurred on by that and come up with ideas, and we’d collaborate and come up with all kinds of stuff that were not in the script. Then, in other shows, writers and other producers got other ideas from that, and it helped the character to grow.
Sam: Happy Days is a true touch stone of my childhood and personal pop culture journey. I know you hear that a lot from people. What do you think it is about that show that really touched the lives of so many people?
Don: That is a good question. I’ve been asked that many times during the original run of the show, and afterwards. I think it’s a combination of things. One thing was that it harkened back to a different time that was simpler and not as complicated and that many people thought was happier. That’s up for debate, but it certainly was simpler. It certainly was a lot less complicated. There certainly was a nostalgia for that music and that time. The country wasn’t that far removed from World War II and the baby boom. So, it was an era that is always going to have residence for people. But it may be more than that. More than that is the fact that I think it was a terrific blending in the casting of this show. You’ve got to tip your hat off to the executive producer and all the people that made the decisions; Garry Marshall, Tom Miller and Ed Milkis, when they cast the show because it was a really wonderful gathering of people. We had such great chemistry and respect for each other, and fondness and love and it all filtered into the show. We were actors that took the show very seriously. We were kind of looked like, initially, by the critics as being very fluffy and they didn’t it take it very seriously. But we took it seriously, to do something that looked kind of easy and just fun. But it took a lot of work, and we worked really hard and had a great time because we got along so well. I also think that people just loved the characters. That’s what they say will make a TV show successful. You have to love the characters.
Sam: You talk about that chemistry. I know that many fans think of the classic era of Happy Days being the episodes that feature you, Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Anson Williams. The four of you played off of each other so well.
Don: Yeah. It was really special. It was special doing some of those scenes together. At the time it’s hard to fathom that this is going to go on for forty or fifty years and that people are going to appreciate it down the road. You’re just doing it and trying to do the best work you can. But there were times when you knew this stuff was really really good. But, yet, we weren’t really being acknowledged by the industry on a critical basis, so it was really frustrating at times. But we were so popular, and people loved us and that was the important thing. But when it was the four of us, there were some scenes that were magic.
Sam: I’ve heard actors tell me time and time again that the show they were on was like a job, and that when they left the studio, they left the people they worked with behind. The cast of Happy Days has always seemed a bit tighter knit than that. Is that a misconception or are the actors from Happy Days as close as it seems?
Don: I don’t know how to measure it against other casts, but we did have a tremendous kinship as you pointed out. We got along great and didn’t just work together but did a lot of things together off the set. We truly enjoyed being together and getting together and we became sort of a family. We even had a softball team and took it on the road. So as I said early, it was this incredible gatherings and gratuitous blending of talent.
Sam: Do you stay in touch with people from the show on a regular basis.
Don: Anson and I are very close. We talk to each other several times a week. We see each other all the time. I just heard from Ron. I think he’s still in Europe, but he just e-mailed me the other day. I speak to Henry often and we’ll get together for lunch. I just saw Marion Ross last week. We do stay in touch.
Sam: I have fond memories of Anson singing on Happy Days. That guy has a golden voice. Any chance you and Anson will get together for a duet?
Don: Funny you mention that. When I did my show at Catalina’s he came to see it and I said I wanted to bring him up for a song at the end and he did get up and do it with me. It was great. People loved it. So beyond my own solo show, we’re talking to some people about putting some sort of show where we might do something together. It would be great to do something with him. He’s very busy with his company, and he has a book out. I’ve read it and it’s [great]. It’s called Singing to a Bulldog. It’s really excellent, but he’s really busy with that.
Sam: Now normally I wouldn’t ask you a question like this, but this is one of the most requested question I got from PCA readers for you, so I need to ask it. Whatever happened to Chuck?
Don: Yeah. A lot of people ask that. It’s surprising how many people inquire about Chuck. Well, it was a bit of a mystery. What happened in the first season was that had him, obviously, as part of the family. He was a real jock, a basketball player and probably not the brightest bulb there. So, he’d come walking through the kitchen dribbling a basketball, make a joke, and that would be it. They didn’t seem to know what to do with Chuck. So, when they started concentrating on Richie and his friends more, I think that Gavin O’Hara felt like he wasn’t doing anything. So, it was explained to us from the executive producers that it was a mutual decision. They didn’t know what else to do and he wanted to part ways. That’s the best I can tell you.
Sam: You and Ron Howard left Happy Days at the end of 1980, which really marked the end of the golden era of the show. Ron came back a few times. What was it that made you decide to bow out at that time?
Don: Ron left at the same time. He came back, but I came back for a two-part episode as well. It was a combination of things for me, just like Ron. Ron really wanted to direct. I’m positive he went back to the producers that he would come back when his contract expired, but he wanted some sort of a guarantee from ABC that he would be able to direct some TV movies and get a chance, but they weren’t willing to do that for him. So, he left, and then NBC sent over a representative and said “Hey. We’ll give you that.” So, he went over there and started directing. For me it was a similar thing. I had been doing Ralph Malph for seven seasons and it was wonderful. But, as an actor, what you really want to do is play all kinds of roles and not just one character. So I was doing it for seven years and, honestly, I didn’t think the material was starting to hold up as well. So, I was not as thrilled with the scripts. I wanted to have a career that would give me a chance for more diversity. So, in a similar vein, I went to the produces and said that I’d come back but give me a role in a TV movie. Something different. Well they weren’t willing to do that. It was disappointing, and surprising, that they wouldn’t do that. So, I felt that after all the time we’d spent in such a huge hit that it was time for me to try to take on other roles and it was time to move on.
Sam: Did you find that the role of Ralph Malph haunted you for a while and prevented you from getting other roles?
Don: Definitely it was difficult breaking away. It’s a double edge sword. It was very difficult being considered for a lot of roles that I think I would have been good for, but I couldn’t even get in for the auditions. It was a bit daunting and tough. It took many years and, to some degree, it still is. But it’s getting easier, and I’ve done a lot more acting roles in the last few years than I had done previously. Lots of independent roles. I had a reoccurring role on Glee. That was a lot of fun. This year alone I’ve done a couple of independent films. I was directing too. But, yes, when your eon a show that that’s so huge and becomes that iconic, there is a lot of people in the industry that still like to categorize and departmentalize, and they put you into little files and that’s who you are and that you’re not any other way. It’s funny, because I am very different from the character Ralph. That’s like how Henry is nothing like Fonzie.
Sam: Oh, I know. I interviewed Henry a number of years ago and I was surprised that the only thing he had in common with Fonzie is that they had the same face. There isn’t a shred of Fonzie in him. In fact, I think Henry is a lot cooler than Fonzie.
Don: Yeah. Fonzie was his creation, and he did a brilliant job. When I was in high school, I was a lot more like Richie Cunningham. I was an honor student and pretty quiet. I was never the comedian. I was always the straight man for a lot of my friends. But, that’s what you do as an actor. That’s what I thought. So, anyways, it was tough breaking away from that, but it’s gotten better and better as I’ve gotten distance from it both age wise and time wise.
Sam: After Happy Days you did a lot of theater, didn’t you?
Don: I did a few shows. A lot of plays in different parts of the country, and a few in LA. I directed a bunch of plays as well, and I was in the national Broadway tour of Grease. I did that for six month. I would do theater a lot to keep busy. I even did it during Happy Days when we’d have hiatus in the off season.
Sam: At what point of your career did you start directing?
Don: Kind of in the same lines of what I was just saying, I started directing while in the theater. It was a more sensible way to start. It was in the early 90’s. I had met a guy named Jody Keil who was running a theater called The Tamarind in LA. He said if I had a play that we’d talk because he’d love to have me come in and direct something. Well, I did have one, and it worked with the theater. I directed it and it was a great experience. It went really well and got great reviews. I ended up doing a few more at that theater, and then a few at other theaters. There wasn’t much risk because they were small theaters, and it was a good way for me to break in and to see how I felt about directing. So, then I started looking for film scripts that I could try to get a chance to direct. So I got a writer and I optioned a couple of scripts. It was in ’98 that I met a prod. r named Michael Murphy, who had produced a lot and I felt well supported by him. So we were able to get the money raised and we shot a film called The Last Best Sunday in ’99. It won a couple of awards and we ended up selling it to the Lifetime Movie Channel. I did another one about five or six years later called Moola and it the Newport Beach Film Festival and I won the award for best director, and it ended up getting sold to Showtime. Then I did another one a few years ago called Harley’s Hill, and I have a few other projects that I am planning to get off the ground so I can direct some more. I’m going to keep plugging away at this.
Sam: You’ve done acting, directing and now music. Which do you prefer? Which is the thing that your heart connects to the most?
Don: Oh man. That’s tough. That’s really tough because they are so different. I think the music is the most intense in terms of the high you get, because music has a way of doing that. Connecting deep. When you’re in the middle of that, and there are great musicians behind you playing great arrangements of great songs and I’m feeling good and you get into that zone, that’s the most intense kind of high.
Actor, director, pop culture icon and now singer, Don Most is a man that wears many hats. I found Don to have a calming nature to him and his answers to my questions were direct, concise and smart. While we will always love him in the role of Ralph Malph, Don Most is an entertainer whose continues to branch out in new and exciting directions. With more concert performances in the work, and potential opportunities to direct future films, Don continues to create more opportunities for himself in an ever-evolving career.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging our interview with Don Most. Looking forward to collaborating again in the future. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.