Donny Most started out his career working as an actor, portraying Ralph Malph on the iconic TV show Happy Days. More roles came, on shows like Love Boat, Teen Wolf, Murder She Wrote, Star Trek: Voyager, Glee and Family Guy. Later on, as Don Most, he diversified his career, adding directing to his skillset. Looking for a new challenge with an old love, he later went into singing, creating the recent Mostly Swinging album, reviewed by Jennifer K. Hugus in the LA Beat here. Don recently sat down with the LA Beat to discuss his passion for big band music, Happy Days, his plans for future projects and much more.
Q: Don, many of the songs from the Big Band Era have a timelessness that keeps their appeal strong. What made you gravitate to the music of that era?
A: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that my mom had a lot of those great big band albums and that she used to love dancing to that when she was a teenager and young adult, so I heard a lot of that when I was pretty young. It continued, when I was nine years old I saw the movie The Jolson Story and the movie had a big effect on me, even at nine. I wound up watching that movie all week long on Million Dollar Movie, which was a program in New York. I remember it was Channel 9 and they showed the same movie twice a night for the entire week, and I think I watched every one. I started hearing all those great songs from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and then subsequently sought out more of the artists that did that. There was a great radio station in New York, WNEW, William B. Williams was the disc jockey and he would play all those great songs and I would listen to it every night before going to bed, so I got a real education from that.
Q: Who were some of your inspirations for your song stylings?
A: A lot of them were the usual suspects, of course Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and also Joe Williams, who was the vocalist for Count Basie for many years. Dean Martin of course, Mel Torme, and Tony Bennett. I also loved a lot of the female jazz singers and they influenced me in many ways as well, Ella of course and Dinah Washington. But the main one that stands out above them all for me was Darin, Bobby Darin, who I just loved. He could sing, he could swing with the best of them, he could sing any style, but he loved that style as well. I saw him at the Copacabana in New York when I was eighteen and it was a great, great experience. There’s a lot of influence from Mr. Darin for me.
Q: There’s a different feeling when you sing with a big band as opposed to a pianist/accompanist. What’s having the band behind you do for you?
A: A big band, when it’s really well done, gets me high, as high as a kite. I used to go see Buddy Rich and his big band all the time and other big bands. I love the sound and the power; and when they’re tight and really good, the precision and the dynamics of a big band is just really wonderful, especially when you’re talking about these great songs and great arrangements. Those are a big part of that. We’ve had a really strong appreciation of the arranger for those big bands. For my CD, I was going to make sure that I had someone really good, I got lucky and found Willie Murillo who did all my arrangements, we did it with a 17 piece big band. His arrangements are fantastic! When I get to sing with that kind of band it’s just a wonderful high, I literally feel some times like I’m on the ceiling!
Q: When you created your new Mostly Swinging CD, what were your thoughts to the theme and selection of songs?
A: I started with a lot of my favorite jazz standards, ones that primarily had a swing feel. That was a theme right from the get-go. I wanted it to mainly be swing, at least the approach to the standards, because you can do a lot of these songs with many different approaches, some ballads that were turned into swing and vice-versa; many people have done that. I was picking ones that I already knew would work great in the swing format and I probably had a list of one hundred songs. I narrowed it down to maybe seventy-five based on just playing around with that, working with Garage Band to see which ones worked the best. I got them down to maybe fifty and then I sat down with Willie Murillo, the producer/arranger, and it was just this sort of organic process, when we just had a lot of enthusiasm for a song it would make the next cut as we’d go through them.
Then the other theme that evolved was a love theme, but that’s usually going to happen when you’re—and I don’t know what the percentage is—-but out of all these songs written, I would say 80-90 percent of them are probably about love and romance, so that’s sort of a natural. We got it down to eventually our twelve songs plus a bonus track. Out of the total of thirteen, they were all swing except for Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered which is a beautiful ballad. The bonus song that we did was just piano in contrast to the rest of the album which was a nice sort of change. It was One For My Baby, which was this quintessential saloon song that Sinatra made famous. It was written by Johnny Mercer. So that’s how it happened—it was a process that took on a life of its own.
The one thing I would add is that with Mostly Swinging, what I’ve been finding is that people of all ages are loving—even when they aren’t supposed to—-are loving it, they could even be teenagers. People are telling me their kids overheard it and started listening and really liked it. Numerous people have told me that their kids; and some of them are teenagers, and it runs all the way up to my age and older. I’m really proud of that, that it seems to transcend some of the normal demographics.
Q: These days, you’ve also got your eyes set on Broadway. How’s that going?
A: I’ve just been getting a lot of encouragement from people lately after they see me perform and hear me sing, where a lot of people are saying that that ‘You should be doing Broadway’, so I started thinking about that more and more. I would love to do a musical, but I also did a lot of theatre over the years. I actually did a Broadway tour, I didn’t do it in New York, but it was a Broadway tour of Grease back in 1996-97. I did a lot of other plays in different parts of the country and in LA, so I would even love to do something like a straight play on Broadway, a drama or a comedy, in addition to musicals. I would love to try that in all the genres, so to speak.
Q: Happy Days was a great start to your career. Do you have a favorite story about those times?
A: There are so many individual sort of anecdotal stories that it’s hard to pick one. What does come to mind to me is just the wonderful working relationship we all had; the respect that we had for each other , the commitment, because we took the work seriously. It looked like at the time like a bunch of people just goofing off having a good time, but there were a lot of talented people working hard to make it look easy. We had a wonderful director, Jerry Paris, a genius director, Garry Marshall being our Executive Producer, so having those people as our mentors guiding us and then the talent the cast had, the chemistry and the way we all got along on a personal level. That’s what I remember, what really stands out for me is the collaborative process and how fervent it was.
Q: How do you look back on your Happy Days times and the Ralph Malph character?
A: The character, it was something that they didn’t—–originally, I auditioned for a different role, the role of Potsie. But then, my agent called me and said ‘You didn’t get that part, but they want to put you in the show, so they’re going to create a role for you’. It was a small part in the pilot of this guy, Ralph Malph, There wasn’t much more at that time except that they said he was a guy who was into cars, a little bit of a jock that was in a car club. From the dialogue I could see that they had him as a little bit of a wise-cracking guy and so I had to develop from that. It was a back and forth process between what I was doing and then what the writers saw. Then Jerry Paris and I would come up with things that would not be in the script, but ideas that could go a little further with something, take it in a little different direction. Then Jerry would get an idea from that. So soon we were giving the writers more raw material to work with and it kept growing as time went on. That was a great experience, a wonderful creative process.
Eventually, I left the show after my seventh season, because I felt it had gone as far as it could have gone and I felt that it was getting repetitive and there wasn’t a chance for it to grow as much. It’s hard for a show after five years to keep fresh, so it lost something I felt and it was starting to lose more and more. I felt it was time—I was still only 27 at the time—-and I thought it was time to move on. I wanted to do a lot of other things as an actor and not just be playing one character.
Q: Like your co-star in Happy Days, Ron Howard, you’ve gravitated towards directing. What is there about directing you like?
A: What I love about it is the fact that I am able to combine a lot of different crafts or fields. The first one being that I was always, with all the classes I took in acting and then all the work I did as an actor, the focus was always on the character and finding the character and making the scene come to life and making it as vibrant and real and artistic as it can be. As a director, you need to bring that to the scene, you need to make sure your actors are all in sync with that and with the story. I also love story telling, so combining the whole narrative of the piece, you have to be very aware of how you’re telling the story and all these individual scenes, making them ‘fly’, to come to life. Also, I used to be into photography a lot, so bringing that visual component to the equation was the third part of the trifecta for me. I love combining all that, I loved and I still do, so hopefully I will be doing more.
I’ve done three films so far and I have several projects I’m excited about now that I’m hoping to get going fairly soon and get behind the camera again and then do it. The last one I did was about five years ago, maybe more, so I’m getting very eager to do some more. As well as acting; I’m really getting motivated. Since I’ve been concentrating on the music the last three years, the acting has taken a little bit of a back seat and I’m really itching to get some great roles and interesting roles and diversity roles because I enjoy playing all different kinds of parts.
Having to put all of those elements together; I enjoy the music, working with the composer who’s going to do the score or figuring out if there are going to be songs that will be in the film. So working on the music element is important. I’ve grown to really enjoy editing, the editing process. So I guess I was premature when I listed those first three components because there are so many more.
Q: What is there about Happy Days that resonates with audiences and still delights them?
A: I think the uppermost factor was the cast. I think it was one of those really fortuitous and serendipitous joining of a cast. You have to give the producers a lot of credit for the incredible casting job and the way that we all gelled together and worked together. The success of any TV series is really going to live and die with the the audiences appreciation and love of a cast, so that was a big part of it. I also think the fact that we did have a great team behind us with Garry Marshall and Jerry Paris and some great writers; that cannot be under-estimated. Plus, the fact that it was timeless because it was a period piece that is not going to get dated because it was intended as a period piece.People can look back at the 50’s and that will never change. People like to harken back to that simpler, more innocent time as an escape from the chaos and different pace of living that we all find ourselves in now as compared to the 50’s. It’s fun to look back, even though it’s a bit of a romanticized way. People enjoy that, so that’s a part of it that is in its own special little niche.
Q: Thank you, Don.
Don Most has become somewhat of a Renaissance Man, with talents in front of the camera and microphone as well as behind the scenes. With Mostly Swinging, he shows that his passion for the music of the Big Bands suits his rich voice well. As an actor, he has covered roles from comedy to drama with skill. And as a director of movies such as Moola, he demonstrates that he understands the actor and the art form that is directing. He is indeed an Entertainer with a capital E.