Judy Norton and Don Most certainly know something about creating iconic characters. As feisty daughter Mary Ellen Walton on The Waltons and jokester Ralph Malph on Happy Days, the pair were guests in millions of living rooms via their hugely popular TV shows in the 1970s and early 1980s.
And while those shows have never been out of the public consciousness or reruns, both Norton and Most have carved out working careers in screenwriting, directing and singing since their shows ended their original runs. After appearing together in the dramatic play Moments Remembered (which Norton wrote), they’ve reteamed as the two lead characters in Jerry Herman's warhorse stage musical Hello, Dolly!
Norton – as the meddling matchmaker title character – knows she has some big heels to fill. Ones that belong to Carol Channing (in the 1964 Broadway version) and Barbara Streisand (in the 1969 film). This is her third run at the role, which she first performed 11 years ago, also in Galveston for Texas Family Musicals. She recalls being a child actress on the 20th Century Fox lot and seeing the sets where the film was made.
“You have to resign yourself to the comparisons, but every [actress] can have a different take, and I have to make the character make sense for me. So I [focus] a bit more on her insecurities, which makes her more identifiable,” Norton says. “And I did get to meet Carol Channing once. I was so excited!”
Most, in the role of gruff store owner and “well-known, unmarried half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder, knows that audiences also may think of Walter Matthau from the film version. Though he himself recalls Paul Ford from the original, 1958 non-musical film version of the story, The Matchmaker.
“I never saw the play, but my first exposure to the music was when I was 14 and taking singing and dancing lessons, we did some of the songs in class,” Most offers, adding that he’s very glad to be back working with Norton. “I did the play with her; everything just flowed and seemed so easy and organic working with her. It was a delight.”
Norton says that she and Most first met while they were working on their respective television series on the softball diamond, playing games on both the same team and on opposites. Though Norton admits she was a little guilty of assuming that Most the real person was like the wisecracky, slightly shady Ralph Malph.
The Waltons (1971-1981) and Happy Days (1974-1984) were two of the decade’s biggest series successes, still popular in reruns and DVD sales today and with dedicated (sometimes too dedicated) fan bases.
Independently of each other, both Norton and Most say that a big chunk of that appeal has to do with the fact that both shows were “already dated" in the ’70s – set in 1930s/'40s Jefferson County, Virginia, and 1950s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, respectively. So there’s more of a universal appeal.
“There’s a charm because it was a period piece,” Norton says. “I think for my show, the fans [of any age] can relate because the characters are real and multi-generational. And it represents an ideal of family that we’d all like to have: tight, close and supportive. And it dealt with human issues and interpersonal relations and struggles. And there’s no technology.”
As for Happy Days, Most gives credit to what he says is the “phenomenal” casting of the show, as well as creator/producer Garry Marshall, director Jerry Paris and the writing staff for creating such a long-lasting series.
“And there’s something about the '50s keeps coming back over and over, and I don’t know why!” he laughs. “I guess the simplicity of that time and not living in the crazy kind of state we are today.”
Given that the dual phone interview with Norton and Most is taking place close to Father’s Day – and that their TV shows both featured two of the era’s most famous TV dads – there is a question that begs. What is something fans may not know about the real Pa Walton (Ralph Waite) and Mr. C (Tom Bosley)?
“The thing with Ralph is that he was very funny," Norton says. “He would – and this was most common around that famous kitchen table – Ralph would start to do one of two things: Tell off-color jokes to a table full of kids, which was questionable. Or he’d sing way out of tune like ‘I SHOT the SHE-RIFF!” and we’d just crack up. And he’d get Michael [Learned, Ma Walton] going, and her shoulders would be shaking while we were trying to film a scene!”
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Most recalls that Bosley – who prior to Happy Days had won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical in 1960 for the musical bio of NYC mayor La Guardia, Fiorello! – had more traditional fatherly advice for himself, Ron Howard (Richie), Henry Winkler (Fonzie) and Anson Williams (Potsie).
“He saw us all through buying our first houses and had a lot advice on mortgages and real estate. And he was at our first weddings!” Most laughs. But perhaps Bosley’s most sage advice to him – and something that Most still adheres to today – concerns an even more manly pursuit.
“He introduced me to single malt scotch. Which I am very grateful for!” Most laughs. “We were at [famed Broadway eatery] Sardi’s, and he saw I was ordering regular Scotch, and told me I couldn’t have that! He especially liked Glenfiddich and advised me on what to get. I’ve never gone back since!”
Hello, Dolly! runs July 14 (7:30 pm.), 15 (2:30 and 7:30 p.m.) and 16 (1:30 and 7:30 p.m.) at the Moody Gardens Convention Center in Galveston. Ticket prices vary. For information, call 855-667-1221 or visit texasfamilymusicals.com.