The actor Tom Bosley, who has died of lung cancer aged 83, played Howard Cunningham, the tolerant, unflappable paterfamilias, in all 255 episodes of the nostalgic American sitcom Happy Days, from 1974 to 1984.
Set in Milwaukee during the 1950s, Happy Days, as the title suggests, was a rosy view of an earlier era. Mr C, as Bosley's character was called by "the Fonz" (Henry Winkler) – the cool, leather-jacketed ladies' man – was the ideal middle-class TV father, a hardware store owner, lodge member and member of a bowling team. The stocky Bosley, often seen behind his newspaper, imbued the character with a certain amount of humorous cynicism towards his homemaker wife (Marion Ross), who sometimes called him "Fatso", and his teenage children, naive Richie (Ron Howard) and pesky Joanie (Erin Moran).
This was in contrast to the weak or tyrannical fathers seen in the rebel teen movies of the 1950s, and to the grumpy, conservative father in That '70s Show (1998-2006) – of which Happy Days was the model – who keeps calling his son a "dumb ass". Any sign of rebellion in Happy Days was either satirised or sanitised.
Bosley will also be remembered for playing another sympathetic father – the Catholic priest and amateur sleuth in the series The Father Dowling Mysteries (1987-91). Actually, the Chicago-born Bosley was Jewish, the son of Benjamin and Dora Bosley. His father worked in real estate; his mother was a concert pianist before bringing up her two sons. After high school, as the second world war neared its end, Bosley joined the navy. He went on to study law at DePaul University in Chicago, but decided, halfway through his studies, to pursue an acting career, despite having "looked in the mirror and realised that I was short and kind of heavy".
In fact, it was his build that helped him land the lead role of the New York City mayor Fiorello H La Guardia in the Broadway musical Fiorello! (1959), for which Bosley won a Tony. Though not a singer, he stopped the show each night with the energetic number The Name's La Guardia. After a few years of bit parts on stage and on television, and odd jobs, Fiorello! made sure Bosley would never have to struggle again.
His first film role was in Robert Mulligan's Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), as a shy, clumsy Italian-American courting Natalie Wood, who doesn't hear the "bells and banjos" she associates with romantic love. In The World of Henry Orient (1964), Bosley offered a foretaste of Howard Cunningham as the understanding father of a teenage girl who has a crush on a concert pianist (Peter Sellers). When reminded of his wife's infidelity, he remarks: "The less said about that the better."
But it was television that took up most of Bosley's time and charm. He made significant appearances in a multitude of shows before Happy Days claimed him. He was offered the role of Mr C only when Harold Gould had to turn it down because of another commitment. Bosley initially rejected it himself, but, "after rereading the pilot script, I changed my mind, because of a scene between Howard Cunningham and Richie. The father/son situation was written so movingly, I fell in love with the project," he recalled.
It was Bosley who had the last word at the end of the final series: "Marion and I have not climbed Mount Everest or written a great American novel. But we've had the joy of raising two wonderful kids, and watching them and their friends grow up into loving adults. And I guess no man or woman could ask for anything more. So thank you all for being part of our family."
Bosley's major post-Happy Days role, apart from Father Dowling, was as Sheriff Amos Tupper in 19 episodes of Murder, She Wrote (1984-88). Tupper tries to help the crime novelist Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) solve real murder mysteries, but is mistaken most of the time, often arresting the wrong suspect.
In 1994 Bosley returned to Broadway after a 25-year absence to appear in the long-running musical Beauty and the Beast, in which as Maurice, Belle's loving, eccentric inventor father, he sang No Matter What. In 2002 he took over the role of Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit-shop owner, in Cabaret.
Bosley is survived by his second wife, Patricia, and a daughter, Amy, from his first marriage.