Al Molinaro, the hawk-nosed character actor who played the clumsy but benevolent owner of Arnold’s Drive-In on “Happy Days” and helped the TV sitcom earn lasting acclaim, died Friday at a Glendale hospital. He was 96.
The cause was complications of a gall bladder infection, said his son Michael.
Before “Happy Days,” which ran from 1974 to 1984, Molinaro portrayed the bumbling but personable police officer Murray on “The Odd Couple,” providing a comic foil for stars Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
“He was one of those really funny, likable secondary comedy characters that the ‘70s were really known for,” said Robert J. Thompson, who leads the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “All of those shows had some really solid second and third bananas, and Al Molinaro was one of them.”
Born Umberto Francesca Molinaro on June 24, 1919, in Kenosha, Wis., he was the ninth of 10 children born to Italian immigrants. He went by Albert at the suggestion of a teacher.
While many of his siblings took on prominent roles in their home state of Wisconsin — one brother was a judge, another a state assemblyman — Molinaro chose a different path.
When a friend suggested he take up acting, his response — as reported by the Kenosha News in 2004 — was simple: “I’ll do that.”
So he boarded a Greyhound and headed west, hoping Hollywood meant a big break. Really, it meant a long lesson in patience.
“I spent 20 years here before I got anything going, and from that I got lucky,” Molinaro once told his hometown paper.
Garry Marshall, the executive producer of “The Odd Couple” and “Happy Days,” recounted the first time he watched Molinaro on the stage. Marshall was at an improvisation show to watch his sister, Penny, perform her stand-up comedy routine when Molinaro’s “raw but very funny” ad-libbed portrayal of a priest caught his attention.
“I hold up Al’s story as an example when I tell people that it’s never too late to follow your dream,” Marshall wrote in “Wake Me When It's Funny: How to Break into Show Business and Stay” (1997).
Molinaro was in his early 50s with only minor roles under his belt — he had played Agent 44 in a couple of episodes of “Get Smart” in the late 1960s — when in 1970 he landed the part in “The Odd Couple” of Murray, the poker-playing clown of a cop, who caught more laughs than he did crooks.
Always a few beats behind, he had a habit of answering rhetorical questions, flashing a cross-eyed look in response to real ones and inching his way on set so that for a moment the camera caught only his sizable schnoz.
His character was the impetus for many scripted nose jokes, but he didn’t mind, his son said, and later appreciated the boost his most prominent feature gave to his career as a character actor.
In Molinaro’s similarly goofy but endearing role as diner owner Al Delvecchio on “Happy Days,” he replaced Pat Morita in 1976 — the same season it topped charts as TV’s most-watched show.
Delvecchio’s 1950s malt shop, with its wood paneling, orange booths, jukebox jams and neon “A” sign, served as the backdrop for the teenage crushes and small quarrels that propelled the plot.
The tire-bellied chef, whose signature phrase “yeeap, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep” often trailed off into a sigh, rarely passed up an opportunity to offer his loyal young patrons advice.
A 1982 Times profile of the show highlighted Molinaro’s endearing role: “The emphasis was always on heart in the episodes in which Molinaro was the star.”
The actor played Delvecchio in more than 100 episodes and knew the character inside and out.
“When you live with a character as long as I have, you know how he would talk in almost any situation,” Molinaro told The Times.
Molinaro left the show in 1982 for the spin-off “Joanie Loves Chachi,” starring Scott Baio and Erin Moran.
He later did work in commercials — most notably as the spokesman for a line of frozen dinners — and had a cameo in a music video for the rock band Weezer. But, he largely stayed out of the limelight — partly, Molinaro contended — because of the types of projects he was willing to work on.
“I’m so square that I won’t be in a movie that has four-letter words in it,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “That puts me pretty much totally out of films these days.”
In addition to his son Michael, he is survived by his wife, Betty; a brother, Oliver; and three grandchildren.