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Gavan O’Herlihy, the Irish actor who played Chuck Cunningham, the big brother on Happy Days who famously disappeared from the show without explanation, has died. He was 70.
O’Herlihy died Sept. 15 in Bath, England, his brother Cormac O’Herlihy told The Hollywood Reporter. His family is choosing not to specify the cause of death, but his brother said it was not related to COVID-19.
In his big-screen debut, O’Herlihy portrayed the ex of the bride (Amy Stryker) in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978).
He also played the SPECTRE bad guy Jack Petachi in Irvin Kershner’s Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983) — his character meets his demise by snake — and the red-striped gang leader Fraker, who gets blown away by Charles Bronson, in Michael Winner’s Death Wish 3 (1985).
O’Herlihy also portrayed a hero who had a death scene in Willow (1988) — the fantasy film was directed by Ron Howard, his younger brother on Happy Days — and a sadistic killer, Dan Suggs, who was hanged, in the 1989 CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove.
His father was Dan O’Herlihy, who played Macduff in Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), the title character in an Oscar-nominated turn for best actor in Luis Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954) and “the Old Man” in the first two RoboCop films.
In 1974, Gavan O’Herlihy appeared in seven episodes as Chuck, a basketball star at Jefferson High who goes off to college, during the first season of ABC’s Happy Days, created by Garry Marshall. (Ric Carrott had played the character in the pilot.)
Seven episodes was enough for him, he said in an undated interview.
“I pulled out of it, I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “They had me at college, I was going to grunt and bounce a basketball once every couple of weeks for probably three or four years. And at 20 years old, that’s not the gig you want to be doing. But that was my big break; that got me established around town as a kid who got hot in a hurry.”
Randolph Roberts replaced him for two episodes of season two, but soon all memory of Chuck was erased from the show. Much later, dad Howard Cunningham (Tom Bosley) even makes a reference to his “two kids,” Richie (Howard) and Joanie (Erin Moran).
Now there is something known as “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” regarding characters who disappear from shows without explanation.
On Twitter, Howard called O’Herlihy a “talented actor with a big free spirit.”
— Ron Howard (@RealRonHoward) November 11, 2021
One of four kids, Gavan John O’Herlihy was born in Dublin on July 29, 1951. A champion tennis player as a teenager, he was raised in Malibu and Dublin, where he attended Trinity College and the Abbey Theater School.
“To give a child another perspective from L.A. is a great thing,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Independent. “There the sun is powerful, the sea is powerful, the money is powerful. But Dublin in those days held its own power. It was dirty and poor and smelly, and for a young man from California, it had its own magical pull.”
After his stint on Happy Days, O’Herlihy appeared on such shows as Marcus Welby, M.D.; The Bionic Woman; Matt Houston; and Star Trek: Voyager and in the acclaimed 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.
He relocated to England to star on the 1982 ITV series We’ll Meet Again, showed up as a guy who bullies Clark Kent in Superman III (1983) and worked with his dad on ABC’s Twin Peaks in 1990-91.
In addition to his brother Cormac, survivors include his other siblings — Patricia; Lorcan, a prominent L.A. architect; and Olwen, a visual artist — his wife, Juliette; and his children, Rogan, Lonan, David and Daniel.
Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.
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