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When one imagines the cast of Happy Days, they’re liable to think of Fonzie, Potsie, or maybe Chachi. Few, if any, would immediately cite Richie Cunningham’s older brother Chuck Cunnigham.
The landmark series launched numerous careers, but it was also the birthplace of an interesting television trope: Chuck Cunningham syndrome. Let’s learn about a vanished character and many more instances of folks like him on television.
Who is Chuck?
Two different actors played Chuck Cunningham over 12 episodes of Happy Days: Gavan O’Herlihy and Randolph Roberts. Chuck was Joanie and Richie’s older brother who liked basketball but was rarely home.
After season two, Chuck disappeared into the ether, never to be explained away or mentioned again. Fans believe he must have gone off to college, and the “older brother character” was effectively replaced by Fonzie. Curiously, at the end of season 11, Chuck’s father Howard said how proud he was of his “two kids,” meaning Richie and Joanie; it seems Chuck didn’t exist at all.
Why Did He Go?
Why did the character really disappear? Well, there wasn’t much to go off of, to begin with. O’Herlihy wasn’t given many lines. He later said, “I hung around for the first half-season, then asked out of the contract. It wasn’t my cup of tea. It raised some eyebrows, but I’m glad I did.” Roberts effectively left the show to do Logan’s Run, and you can’t blame him for that. Chuck was hardly integral to the show’s survival, as it continued to flourish for nine more seasons without him.
The Birth Of A Trope
Chuck Cunningham survives as the namesake of a television trope: Chuck Cunningham syndrome. It applies any time a central character, typically early in the run of a series, vanishes—never to be mentioned again. There are loads of examples throughout television history, so here are some of our favorites.
Judy Winslow on ‘Family Matters’
Family Matters went through a monumental shift in focus. The series was once about the Winslow family before becoming all about the wacky neighbor Steve Urkel. The clearest example of this shift comes in the form of Judy Winslow.
Portrayed by Jaimee Foxworth, Judy was the youngest of the Winslow family. Like Chuck Cunningham, she was rarely seen and never mentioned after season four. Foxworth’s career after the show proved tumultuous as she ended up working in the adult entertainment industry.
Tina Pinciotti on ‘That ‘70s Show’
That ‘70s Show was itself a send-up of shows like Happy Days. Perhaps this is why the central character, Donna Pinciotti, had a sister for only one episode. In season one, viewers were introduced to Tina.
She would never be seen or mentioned again, save for a comical cliffhanger in season two: “And what ever happened to Midge’s daughter Tina? Confused? You won’t be, after the next episode of That ’70s Show!” This is probably an intentional send-up of Chuck himself, but it still counts.
Ben Geller on ‘Friends’
This one’s cheating a little bit because the character was around for most of the series, but it’s still rather confusing. Ross Gellar’s son Ben was a consistent presence throughout most of Friends. He was famously played by Cole Sprouse in seasons six through eight.
In the midst of season eight, however, he was never mentioned again. He never interacts with his half-sister Emma, and it’s as though he never existed. Some fan theories believe Ross lost custody of Ben, but this was never confirmed.
Many Men On ‘Gilmore Girls’
Gilmore Girls saw numerous men come into Stars Hollow for a bit, only to vanish. Lane’s serious boyfriend Dave Rygalski was all over season three, but then actor Adam Brody landed the OC. Dave’s character was mentioned a bit in season four, but Dave and Lane broke up off-screen. This is just one of many men to up and vanish throughout the show’s run. Lorelai dated Alex Lesman for a few episodes of season three, but then he was just suddenly gone as well.
Season four ended with the introduction of Graham Sullivan (played by Teddy Hall), an obvious love interest for Rory Gilmore. He got his own episode but was seemingly replaced by Logan Huntzberger. Hall would soon land a recurring gig on Veronica Mars, so he did just fine.
Kate Lockley On ‘Angel’
The first few seasons of Angel feature LAPD officer Kate Lockley, portrayed by Elisabeth Röhm. She vanished from the series after a failed suicide attempt in season two. Considering all the drama that occurs over the next three seasons, it’s rather shocking that Angel Investigations would never seek her assistance. The character would return in the comics.
Nicole Bristow On ‘Zoey 101’
The first two seasons of Zoey 101 featured Alexa Nikolas as Nicole Bristow. She was just as much part of the gang as anyone else. At the start of season three, viewers learned she’s been diagnosed with OMGD or obsessive male gender disorder. Despite Zoey saying she’ll return, the character was never mentioned again.
Mark Brendanawicz On ‘Parks & Recreation’
When critics talk about Parks & Recreation, the general consensus is it picks up once Adam Scott and Rob Lowe join the cast in season two. Up to that point, Ann Perkins’ main love interest was Mark Brendanawicz. He was pretty straight-laced and was not a fan favorite. He left the government to work for Norton Construction, never to be heard from again.
Tiger The Dog On ‘The Brady Bunch’
The Brady Bunch featured numerous pets over the years, but the most notable has to be the family dog Tiger. Tiger appeared in ten episodes and was played by two different pooches. The first died in a car crash, and the second was quietly let go because animals make unpredictable employees.
Mandy Hampton On ‘The West Wing’
Season One of The West Wing heavily featured Mandy Hampton. She was a hot-shot White House media consultant based on Mandy Grunwald. Despite being a primary cast member, actress Moira Kelly and producer Aaron Sorkin agreed the character just was not working. She departed the show with no explanation, never to be heard from again.
Nebula Lawrence On ‘Boy Meets World’
A generation of folks fell in love with Topanga on Boy Meets World. Far fewer fell for, nor even remember her older sister Nebula. Nebula was around in season one, then Topanga is referred to as an only child. Curiously, the actress Krystee Clark would return to the series as a different character in season two.
Professor Slater On ‘Community’
Community saw many beloved characters leave over the course of its run. Ian Duncan, Troy Barnes, and Buzz Hickey all came and went, but one of the more perplexing exits came from Professor Slater. She was a love interest for Jeff Winger for a bit but vanished into thin air. A joke later in the series on a news ticker marked her final reference, “Professor Slater still missing…”
What Do We Make Of This?
This sleet of examples proves how television series change a lot over time. It’s pretty common for casts to iron themselves out over the course of a season or two. Once you start looking for Chuck Cunninghams, you’re bound to notice one in just about any long-running series. If a background character vanishes, it doesn’t have to be a bad sign. It just means showrunners are figuring out what the series should be.
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