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A veteran scene-stealer with a knack for playing lovable losers, character actor Al Molinaro was a beloved presence to television audiences in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to regular appearances on "Get Smart" (NBC-CBS, 1965-70) and "The Odd Couple" (ABC, 1970-75), before playing his signature role, Al Delvecchio, on "Happy Days" (ABC, 1974-84). Molinaro left the show in 1982 to join the spin-off "Joanie Loves Chachi" (ABC, 1982-1983) and briefly starred in his own series, "The Ugily Family" (ABC, 1980), putting the breaks on his thriving television career. But Molinaro's familiarity to viewers made for a natural transition to commercials, where he enjoyed a long stint as an overly helpful grocer in spots for On-Cor frozen foods. Though largely removed from acting by the mid-1990s, Molinaro nonetheless earned a new generation of fans, thanks to an appearance as Al in Weezer's music video for "Buddy Holly," and endless reruns of "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days." Al Molinaro died at the age of 96 in Glendale, California on October 30, 2015.
Born on June 24, 1919, Molinaro was one of ten siblings who grew up on the West Side neighborhood of Kenosha, WI. Molinaro's acting career began in local television programs and advertising - some sources listed his first film appearance as "Love Me Madly" (1954), an exceptionally modest adults-only feature, though his participation remained unconfirmed. He gradually worked his way up to bit parts in sitcoms like "Green Acres" (CBS, 1965-1970) and "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-72) before replacing Dave Ketchum as Agent 44 on "Get Smart." Molinario's hangdog expression perfectly encapsulated 44's peculiar fate: to be stationed in all manner of uncomfortable and even impossible locations - mailboxes, lockers, wine barrels - in order to deliver key information to Maxwell Smart (Don Adams).
In the early 1970s, Molinaro shared an acting class with Penny Marshall, whose brother Garry would be instrumental in giving the actor his greatest exposure in just a few years. Prior to that, he shared the small screen with Marshall on "The Odd Couple," where Molinaro was a featured player as Murray the Cop, who drew big laughs from the studio audience by entering a scene nose-first. Molinario stayed with the series until its conclusion in 1975, after which he was a frequent guest star on other programs. He was also featured in a supporting turn as a gangster in the TV-movie version of the failed Broadway musical "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman" (1975).
Garry Marshall tapped Molinaro to replace Pat Morita as the owner and head cook at Al's Diner, chief hangout of the gang on "Happy Days." He quickly became an audience favorite thanks to his signature catchphrase - a weary "Yep, yep, yep " - and endless stories about the woman who left him for a tie salesman. Molinaro also played Al's twin brother, Father Delvecchio, who turned up in a 1976 episode of Marshall's other hit series, "Laverne and Shirley" (ABC, 1976-83). Morita would return as Arnold for occasional episodes in 1982, while Molinaro defected from "Happy Days" to enjoy an expanded role on the spin-off "Joanie Loves Chachi," which was created to capitalize on the popularity of star Scott Baio with younger female viewers. The series took the characters from Milwaukee to Chicago, where Al, now married to Chachi's mother (Ellen Travolta), ran a new restaurant and spent much of his time beaming at the two young leads as they warbled one atrocious pop song after another. The much-derided series ran out of steam after one season, and Molinaro returned to "Happy Days" for occasional guest shots before the series ended its long network run in 1984.
Molinaro branched out further on his own, filming a pilot for ABC in 1982 called "The Ugily Family," which depicted him as the head of an East Coast Italian family whose last name was forever being mispronounced as "ugly" (its correct phrasing was "you-GEE-lee.") The show, which also starred Doris Roberts as Molinaro's wife, attempted to mine its laughs from the cultural contrasts between the loud, overbearing Ugilys and the Southern California natives who surrounded them after a cross-country move. Unanimous audience rejection kept the show from progressing past a single episode. Meanwhile, Molinaro busied himself with guest spots on other series, while opening a chain of diners called Big Al's with fellow "Happy Days" star Anson Williams. Milking the Al persona, Molinaro shot 42 commercials for On-Cor frozen foods, playing a busybody grocer named Al who sought to solve shoppers' dining dilemmas by foisting the family-sized products on them.
Molinaro's last series role came with "The Family Man" (CBS, 1990-91), a sitcom starring Gregory Harrison as a widowed firefighter who attempts to raise his four children as a single dad. Molinaro added old-school comedy as Harrison's well-meaning dad, who invariably added to the chaos. The show lasted only a single season, forcing Molinaro to once again return to guest appearances, though they occurred with less frequency. He reprised Al Delvecchio for Weezer's clever 1995 music video for the song "Buddy Holly," which incorporated footage from "Happy Days" with new scenes of Molinaro and the band at Al's Diner. Shortly before the new millennium, Molinaro retired from acting to work on a book about his childhood in Kenosha and his acting experiences. Al Molinaro died of complications from gallstones at the age of 96 on October 30, 2015 in Glendale, California.
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