You remember him as the star of the iconic 1970s sitcoms “Happy Days” and “Joanie Loves Chachi” as Chachi, the lovable little cousin of the Fonz. Or you know him from his 1980s stint on “Charles in Charge” and the film “Zapped.” Or perhaps his early 1990s run on “Diagnosis Murder.” Younger fans may even recognize him as the dad on the current Nickelodeon sitcom “See Dad Run.” Tack on his first role in the musical “Bugsy Malone,” and you realize that Scott Baio has had one hell of a career.
Just don’t call him an “actor.”
Mr. Baio talked about how he avoided the pitfalls of being a teen idol, the difference between an actor and an “actor” and the work of his charitable organization, the Bailey Baio Angel Foundation and its upcoming charity golf tournament.
Question: How long have you been golfing?
Answer: I started 25 years ago but didn’t take it seriously until six years ago. Took lessons. I play every day I can. But I only play nine holes. Eighteen? I don’t have the attention span.
Q: What inspired you to start your own charity golf tournament?
A: I play so much, and my wife kept saying, “Why don’t we do a golf tournament to raise money for our charity?” We live so close to the golf course here, and so many people we know play golf.
Q: Why did you start the Baily Baio Angel Foundation?
A: Our daughter was falsely diagnosed with a rare metabolic disorder. Turned out she didn’t have it. It took three months to find out. During those months my wife had been online reaching out and discovering what metabolic disorders were, and she found this community of people who didn’t have a voice.
When we got the all-clear, I was like, “Great! Let’s move on.” My wife said, “No. I can’t move on. All these people need help.” That’s how it started.
We provide supplies to people. One child may need a special wheelchair, so we provide the wheelchair. The formulas are very expensive, and insurance companies won’t pay for them. That’s where the money goes.
Q: Because you grew up on TV, do you feel like you missed out on childhood?
A: Sure. But I really wasn’t a child actor. A child is five or six. I started when I was nine. But I was a relatively normal kid. I missed out on certain things that I always wondered about: the high school dances, proms, fraternities. But my childhood was normal until I was 13. I did a movie called “Bugsy Malone,” which changed everything. I was brought to Los Angeles.
Q: Did it become all about acting once you moved west?
A: You’re saying acting like I was an actor. I wasn’t an “actor.” I’m still not an actor.
Q: You don’t consider yourself an actor?
A: There are two different kinds of actors. There are people who take it just so damn seriously. Then there are guys like me that just get up and love doing it. In the beginning I was just getting by on being cute and having energy. One day I sort of understood a lot of things. But I still wouldn’t get into the “acting” thing. I worked for Gary Marshall for a long time. He said, “It’s gotta be fun. If it’s not fun, go home.”
Q: How did you survive being a “teen idol”?
A: I just did it. I don’t know. It was all so great. All so heady. I had a singing career for a minute. And I can’t sing.
Q: You released two albums.
A: Two albums, because one wasn’t bad enough. I had to release a second one to prove that I was really bad. [Being] onstage in front of 15,000 screaming girls is one of the most incredible things I’ll ever do. You have to get a big head. And I did for a minute.
There was a time when I wasn’t taking my craft seriously. My role on “Happy Days” started getting smaller and smaller. One of the executives wanted to fire me. But Gary Marshall said, “Let him go through it. He’ll be OK.” Gary told my dad, “Your son is not doing his job.” My father told me, “This doesn’t come around but once in a life.” I started doing my work after that.
Q: Were there any periods of nonwork?
A: There were a couple years where I just actually directed. I found that to be gratifying. It was fun for me. Then it stopped being fun.
A: Because everybody’s got a damn opinion. Writers, producers, network, secretaries. I was like, “Just shut up!” I learned from [“Happy Days” director] Jerry Paris, who never made an actor look bad. I never made an actor look bad — always gave them funny stuff to do. Tried to make them comfortable.
At a certain point the micromanagement got to me. “The glass is half-full — should it be more full?” Or “Her sweater is pink [but] should it be reddish pink?” I thought, “Jesus Christ, folks! What are we doing? Worrying about sweater color?”
That made me say “I’m done!” I just begged off the directing. I did some independent films and then the reality show on VH1 for a couple years.
Q: Do you have a favorite of all the shows you did? Least favorite?
A: The least favorite was “Joanie Loves Chachi.” Horrible situation. Because [co-star Erin Moran], I don’t know what she was doing. She was not all together. I don’t think she wanted to be there. The writing was very poor. We had the writers of “Happy Days” on the first four episodes. But when the show went to series, they left.
In hindsight, I should have done a show without her, because there was nowhere for the show to go with her.
The most fun I’ve ever had has to be “See Dad Run.” A dear friend of mine has this great expression: “These are the good old days.” I remember on Day One, going in — I was the executive producer too — I said, “These are the good old days. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
My wife and daughter came to every show. I got to work at Paramount, a studio that I love, on the [same] stage where we filmed “Happy Days.” That was the most fun.
The Scott Baio 1st Annual Charity Golf Tournament benefiting The Bailey Baio Angel Foundation is on September 21.