The Happy Days star who fell on hard times
Erin Moran 1960–2017
Erin Moran was already an experienced actress when in 1974, at age 12, she was cast as Joanie Cunningham in TV’s Happy Days. Over the next decade, audiences watched Joanie—the younger sister of all-American teenager Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard—grow from a cheeky kid into a feisty young woman. But after Happy Days went off the air in 1984, Moran’s career collapsed. Suffering from depression, she left Hollywood and eventually ended up living in an Indiana trailer park, where she died from cancer last week at age 56. “I wanted time off to reassess my life and career,” she said in 1988 of her decision to quit Hollywood. “I had to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to keep doing this, or do I want to sit back and take it easy for five years, 10 years?’”
Born in Burbank, Calif., Moran was 5 when her parents signed her up with a child talent agent, said The Times (U.K.). “She was soon playing Jenny Jones, an orphan, in Daktari, a TV series about a U.S. veterinarian in Africa.” In 1968, she made her big-screen debut alongside Debbie Reynolds in How Sweet It Is. On Happy Days, producers pressured Moran to stay in shape. Ahead of her 15th birthday, they began putting her in skimpy clothing and gave her a love interest, Chachi Arcola, played by Scott Baio. In 1982, Moran and Baio “were given their own show, Joanie Loves Chachi,” said The New York Times. But the spinoff was “widely panned,” lasting only 17 episodes. The pair rejoined Happy Days for its final season, which ended after Joanie and Chachi married.
Moran “acted on screen just twice” in the next two decades, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). When the acting jobs “dried up for good,” she appeared in reality shows like Celebrity Fit Club and Scott Baio Is 45...and Single. Her California home was foreclosed on in 2010, and she moved to an Indiana trailer park to take care of her mother-in-law. Temporarily kicked out because of her “hard partying,” she flitted from motel to motel and was followed around by tabloid photographers eager for shots of a “troubled former child star.” Yet Moran never regretted her time in the spotlight. “When somebody accidentally calls me Joanie and they apologize,” she once said, “I say, ‘Don’t apologize. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.’”