For some actors, their face is their fortune. For Al Molinaro, it was his nose.
His luck as a performer changed when he was introduced, proboscis first, to TV viewers in a classic bit on The Odd Couple. We see a prominent schnozz stuck in the door of Felix and Oscar’s apartment, and Oscar announces, “Murray!” That earned one of the series’ biggest laughs, rivaled only when the lunkheaded but likable cop turned up undercover in drag in Central Park. “It was going to be Kowalski, but he really let himself go,” Murray explains to his incredulous friends.
Molinaro was a classic second banana, at the receiving end of zingers tossed by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall and sometimes stealing a scene or two from them, literally by a nose. When the show’s five-year run ended in 1975, producer Garry Marshall plucked him from unemployment to play another signature role, that of Al Delvecchio, who replaced Arnold (Pat Morita) behind the counter of Arnold’s Drive-In Diner on Happy Days. Al served up the burgers and his trademarked “yep-yep-yep-yeps” from 1976 to 1982, and worked a double shift when his twin brother, Father Anthony, showed up in Milwaukee for a visit.
It was a solid 12-year run for the actor, and he had a half life as Al, too. But Molinaro was no overnight sensation. As he put it, “I spent 20 years here before I got anything going, and from that I got lucky. It takes a lot of luck in show business too. You’ve just got to be lucky and in the right place at the right time.”
While Molinaro looked as if he stepped straight off the streets of Brooklyn to the New York soundstages of The Odd Couple, he was in fact the pride of Kenosha, Wisconsin, a town with a strong Italian-American heritage just 40 miles from Milwaukee. His father, a restaurateur and hotel owner, sponsored Italians who were hoping to immigrate to America, and two of his brothers (he was one of 10 siblings) were prominent in state and local politics. “I love that town; I love it,” Molinaro said of Kenosha. “If it wasn’t that I left it for show business, I’d still be there today.”
But in his early 30s he did leave it. Showbiz, however, came later, as he started his own collection agency in Southern California and got lucky in real estate. The proceeds enabled him to concentrate on his dream of an acting career, and it looked as if he would get lucky there, too, when he was cast on the popular Get Smart, as Agent 44, in 1969. After just two episodes he was deep-sixed in favor of another performer, so it was back to classes, where he met budding actress Penny Marshall. When he met her brother Garry, who was casting The Odd Couple, the rest was sitcom history.
Molinaro reprised Delvecchio on the short-lived spinoff Joanie and Chachi (1982-1983) and played the part a few more times on Happy Days as the show, which ran 11 seasons, finally wound down in 1984. A flop sitcom, The Family Man (1990-1991), ended his TV acting career at age 72. He did commercials, for Mr. Big toilet paper and On-Cor frozen dinners, and from time to time was overheard on the radio with D.C. shock jocks Don and Mike.
But Al, as Al, had a nose for hanging around in pop culture. He and co-star Anson (“Potsie”) Williams opened Big Al’s, a chain of diners, in 1987. In 1994, Weezer, under the stylized comic direction of Spike Jonze, revived the Arnold’s Drive-In Diner set, Happy Days’ 50s-in-the-70s aesthetic, and Molinaro’s portrayal for a classic video, “Buddy Holly,” which won four MTV Music Video Awards. In the video Al name-checks Kenosha, cuts a rug, and has the last word—“yep-yep-yep-yep”—as he went into constant rotation for a new generation of fans.