Richie was the middle child of the Cunningham family, the older brother of Joanie Cunningham and younger brother of Chuck Cunningham. His closest friends were Ralph Malph, and Warren "Potsie" Weber, but Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli eventually referred to Richie as his best friend.
Richie was the original main character of the series, but over time Fonzie became the breakout character of the show. By Season 3 Henry Winkler became second only to Ron Howard in star billing until Howard left the series, at which point Winkler was elevated to star status.
Ron Howard also played Richie in several other shows: first, in the Love and the Television Set episode of Love, American Style, and later in a guest star capacity in the spinoff series Laverne & Shirley. Howard also voiced Richie in the 1980 animated series The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.
Richie Cunningham was the epitome of the 1950s wholesome, clean-cut, All-American teenager. His red hair and freckles gave him a strong resemblance to 50s TV icon Howdy Doody.
Outside of Fonzie, Richie's closest friend was Potsie followed by Ralph; it was mentioned more than once that Richie and Potsie had been best friends since childhood. Like Potsie and Ralph, Richie's primary goal in his teen years was to pick up girls, though any success he had did not last long. Early on he was more willing to do almost anything to get girls, including going through an hazing ritual to join a gang, which included him and Potsie dressing up as girls and going to a dance. Richie took part in fewer of these machinations over time, but occasionally he would go along with a scheme cooked up by Potsie or Ralph, though something would almost invariably go wrong with their plans, and the three would get into some kind of trouble. Whenever he was feeling as though he might get lucky with a girl, he would start singing the first line of Fats Domino's hit song Blueberry Hill ("I found my thrill... on-n-n Blueberry Hill").
But in contrast to them, Richie does not readily compromise his own moral code, whereas Ralph and Potsie's collective eagerness to do anything to be cool earned them both the derisive nickname "nerd" by Fonzie. On the occasion that Richie would become angry or annoyed, he would call any opponent "Bucko", even using the name on Fonzie on more than one occasion.
Richie is always willing to stand up for what he believes, to his adversaries as well as his friends, no matter what it might cost him. This trait caught the attention and eventual admiration of Fonzie when they first met; Fonzie was a member of a gang called the Falcons and resented Richie at first sight, but when he threatened to beat him up, Richie stood his ground, which caused Fonzie to remark, "You got guts!" From that moment on the two became friends, and Fonzie appointed himself a protector of Richie and the others, usually showing up right at the last second before any of them can get hurt by bullies or gang members. Another early example of his integrity was in the episode Big Money when, after winning $3,200 on a quiz show, Richie is given the answer to the $5,000 question for next week's show. He eventually does the right thing and throws the game, losing the $3,200 and receiving a consolation prize.
Richie was also a proven man of his word, as evidenced in the Season 2 episode "Fish and the Fins" when, even though nobody else believed him, Richie said he was childhood friends with Rocky Rhodes (a stage name for Angelo Coletti), a member of the rock and roll band Johnny Fish and the Fins; when Rocky asked Marion if he and his band could stay at their house to get away from the noise of their fans, Marion agreed. Richie saw it as a chance to prove himself right to Potsie, Ralph and the others, but when Rocky swore him to secrecy, Richie reluctantly agreed. Later during their concert, the band dedicated their first song to Richie, even mentioning the problems Richie had to face with their staying at his house in secret.
Early on, Richie mentioned that he wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer, but it turned out that his real passion was for journalism. His first reporting job was for the Jefferson High Bugle, and he later worked as a cub reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. After graduating high school, Richie studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), where he would meet Lori Beth Allen; the two would begin dating which turned into a steady relationship. After graduating from UWM, Richie served a brief tour in the Army and was stationed in Greenland, during which time he proposed to, and then married Lori Beth by telephone, with the Fonz standing in as groom for Richie. Lori Beth visited Richie in Greenland long enough to get pregnant with their first child: a son who was aptly named Richard Jr.
In the final season of the series, Richie returned to Milwaukee and, after wrestling with his conscience, and after a falling out with Howard (and a brief fight with Fonzie), Richie decides to move his family west to California and further his writing career in the hope of finding work as a screenwriter.
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