December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

The lyric book atop the baby-grand piano in Donny Most’s living room is open to “Memory,” from the musical Cats. But when it comes to his six-year run as carrot-topped cutup Ralph Malph on Happy Days, the beloved ’70s-but-set-in-the-’50s sitcom that’s now a staple on Nick at Nite, Most, 45, is no nostalgia buff. For one thing, it’s Don now—not Donny. “That was then,” he sighs, sinking into a cushy chair in the sunny Ventura County, Calif., house he shares with Morgan, 40, his wife of 16 years, and their two daughters. It’s tough living with his goofball past, says Most, who blames type-casting for dashing his dreams of juicy dramatic roles after his departure from Days. “I’ve always been pretty serious and introspective,” he says, “and Ralph was anything but.”

Most may finally be shaking off his loudmouthed alter ego. He has a recurring role as a death-obsessed shrink in the syndicated The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. And this year—following in the footsteps of Days costars Ron Howard, Henry Winkler (who directed 1993’s Cop and a Half) and Anson “Potsie” Williams (who directs TV series such as Star Trek: Voyager)—Most decided to step behind the camera. He just wrapped The Last Best Sunday, a $1 million romantic drama he hopes will make a splash at independent film festivals. “It’s a gem,” says close friend Howard, 44, who cast Most as a glib TV exec in his upcoming ED TV. Former “Fonzie” Winkler, 53, adds that his ever-“intense” pal is “very meticulous, which makes him perfect for making movies.”

Most’s days with Richie, Potsie and the Fonz were largely happy ones. The Brooklyn-reared son of an accountant and a homemaker, Most made his acting debut in a Chex cereal ad at age 16 and dropped out of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University in 1973 to head to Hollywood, where he quickly nabbed the role of the hyperactive Ralph. (As legend has it, Most says, Michael Eisner, then an ABC-TV exec, bellowed, “Put that redheaded kid in the show!”) “I was really more interested in dramatic work,” Most says, “but I thought, ‘Well, I guess I could do comedy’ ”

As Happy Days’ ratings revved up—it was No. 1 in 1976-77—Most enjoyed the camaraderie with his co-stars. “We were almost brothers,” he says. But fame distressed the shy Most, and playing Ralph “started to feel a little bit stifling.” In 1979 producers considered spinning off a” series starring Most and Williams. Most “was almost relieved” when plans were scuttled. Along with Howard he bid a “tough” goodbye to Happy Days in 1980. “I think Don feared being swallowed up,” says Howard. “He sensed he would come out of the show finding it tough to express his creative side.”

In fact, Most found his acting ambitions—he idolized Jack Nicholson and wanted to star in a bio of crooner Bobby Darin—foiled. “I couldn’t even audition for the movies I wanted,” he says. He made ends meet with Happy Days residuals and low-profile TV and theater roles. The cancer deaths of his father and mother, in 1981 and 1993, also “took a lot out of me,” says Most, who wed Morgan, an actress he met on a 1979 episode of Days, in 1982. After directing L.A. stage productions, he set out for the big screen. He tapped Howard for tips and cast Days matriarch Marion Ross as a nosy neighbor. “He was so organized and grown-up,” says Ross, who hosted a Days reunion in October for her 70th birthday. “And he’s a wonderful dad—all those Happy Days boys pride themselves on being family men.”

Indeed, the avid golfer often ferries daughters Madison, 11, and Mackenzie, 10, to soccer practice (their four-bedroom pad also houses dachshund Rusty and mutt Mikey). Most’s post-Days “self-doubt” is behind him. “I always had a belief in myself, and I started wondering if it was founded,” he says. “Life’s a roller coaster, but I feel a change.”

Samantha Miller

John Griffiths in Ventura County

You May Like