Character actor Al Molinaro, best known for playing Arnold’s (later Al’s) Diner owner Al Delvecchio on the sitcom Happy Days and the show’s spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachie, has died, his family confirmed today. He was 96. According to his family, he died from gall stone complications, having chosen not to remove the stones owing to his age.
Al Molinaro was born Umberto Francesca Molinaro and raised in the Kenosha, Wisconsin, neighborhood of Columbus Park, the son of Italian immigrants Raffaele and Teresa Molinaro.
Molinaro moved to California in the early 1950s and worked odd jobs, finally saving enough money to start his own collection agency. He eventually sold his business and became interested in southern California real estate speculation. His investments paid off when one of his properties was purchased by a conglomerate which used the land to build one of the largest retail shopping malls of its day. As a result, Molinaro was already financially independent when he decided to pursue his longtime dream of being an actor.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Molinaro studied acting and was offered guest roles on TV sitcoms, including Bewitched, Get Smart, Green Acres, and That Girl.
He took an improvisation class, in which Penny Marshall was one of the other students. In 1970, Marshall introduced him to her brother, producer Garry Marshall, who offered Molinaro the role of police officer Murray Greshler on the TV sitcom The Odd Couple, which starred Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. The show aired until 1975.
In 1976, Molinaro was hired by Garry Marshall to replace Pat Morita on another sitcom he produced, Happy Days. Molinaro’s character was the owner of Arnold’s malt shop, Al Delvecchio, who was known for the catchphrase “Yup-yup-yup-yup”.
In 1981, Molinaro married Betty Farrell
He left Happy Days in 1982, but then was tapped by Garry Marshall again to play the Al Delvecchio role on the short-lived Happy Days spin-off, Joanie Loves Chachi, starring Scott Baio and Erin Moran.
In speaking about his acting career, Molinaro said, “I spent twenty years here before I got anything going, and from that I got lucky. It takes a lot of luck in show business. You’ve just got to be lucky and in the right place at the right time.”
In 1987, Molinaro and fellow Happy Days cast member Anson Williams opened a chain of diners called Big Al’s. The business went defunct.
He revealed in 1990 that he declined acting roles in movies offered to him by Garry Marshall. Molinaro said at the time, “I can’t work in movies with Garry because I’m so square that I won’t be in a movie that has four-letter words in it. That puts me pretty much totally out of films these days. You get to a point where you don’t want to do just anything for the career. You gotta live with yourself”.
Molinaro appeared in the Happy Days Reunion Special on ABC in 1992. He did not, however, participate in Happy Days: 30th Anniversary Reunion, which the network aired in 2005.