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Too Much, Too Young

If it’s big in America, it’s usually big in the rest of the world. That’s a good rule-of-thumb for popular culture. And it’s worked for everything from the film-franchise Stars Wars, set in a galaxy far, far away, to the TV series Dallas, set among Texan millionaires.

Star Wars and Dallas appealed to people’s fantasies about adventure and excitement in exotic locations. They both made it big in the 1970s. So did the TV series Happy Days. But Happy Days wasn’t about fantasy: it was about ordinariness. It wasn’t set in a distant galaxy and it didn’t portray millionaires. Instead, it was a gentle comedy set in a 1950s American suburb and it portrayed ordinary families trying to enjoy life together at the dawn of rock’n’roll.

It was intended as a feel-good show and it succeeded. Audiences in America and the rest of the world took it to their hearts, making big stars out of actors like Ron Howard, who played Ritchie Cunningham, and Henry Winkler, who played Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. That level of fame can be difficult to handle, but Howard and Winkler were both level-headed adults who’d been in the acting profession for years by the time they won parts on Happy Days.

The actress Erin Morgan didn’t have those advantages. She was only fourteen when she joined the show to play Ritchie’s younger sister Joanie Cunningham. Thousands of other aspiring actresses must have envied her big opportunity and, human nature being what it is, half-hoped that she would fumble it. She didn’t. As the series progressed she became one of the most popular characters of all, creating some memorable on-screen chemistry with the actor Scott Baio, who played Chachie Arcola. The studio behind Happy Days liked what they saw so much that they created a new series just for Morgan and Baio.

It was called Joanie Loves Chachi and it looked like the next big step in Morgan’s career. Sadly, it turned out to be a step to nowhere. The series was cancelled after only a year and Morgan never hit the big time again. As many child stars have proved down the years, early success can be worse than no success, because it makes failure in adult life much harder to handle. That’s why two things can be said about the news of Erin Morgan’s death at the early age of fifty-six.

First, the news is sad. Second, it’s unsurprising. After that dazzling success in her teenage years, Morgan must have hoped to be successful for many decades to come. She wasn’t: she streaked across the show-biz sky and then crashed to earth. Is it any wonder that she sought consolation in drink and drugs? It isn’t, but it was the wrong thing to do. Drink and drugs make problems worse even as they deaden the pain.

But no matter how low Morgan sank she never lost the love and affection of those who had performed with her on Happy Days. They understood why she felt and behaved in the way she did. And they tried to help her. None of it worked. Perhaps Morgan was frightened of being successful again, because it would remind her of what she had lost. Either way, she has left all her troubles behind now. As Henry Winkler and Scott Baio pointed out in their tributes: she now has the peace she sought vainly during her later years.