|(from l to r) Henry Winkler, Scruffy, Ron Howard, and Erin Bunt.|
"Never work with children or animals." That was supposedly the motto of legendary screen comedian W.C. Fields, though I can find no evidence that the famously misanthropic Fields ever said such a thing. The idea behind the saying is that children and animals tend to get all the laughs and attention from audiences, and they're notoriously unpredictable performers who don't stick to the script. Onscreen, Fields was occasionally paired with bratty children, since they tended to bring out the hilarious worst in him. One of his most memorably irritating foils, for instance, was child star Baby LeRoy.
Today, on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, my cohost and I look at "Spunky, Come Home," a 1977 episode in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) shares the screen with both a child and a dog. The child in question is prolific '70s film and TV star Erin Blunt, probably best known today for his work in the Bad News Bears movie franchise, though he also turned up in everything from The Waltons to Get Christie Love! back then. The dog is Scruffy, a well-trained terrier who had previously starred on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and who would go on to shill for Chuck Wagon.
This is the first new podcast we recorded since the nationwide protests over police brutality, and the timing was either perfect or horrendous. In "Spunky, Come Home," Fonzie acquires and then quickly loses a dog named Spunky (played by Scruffy). Erin Blunt's character, a wisecracking black kid named Wilbur, is falsely accused of having stolen the dog and is arrested and nearly charged. Fortunately, Ralph (Donny Most) and Potsie (Anson Williams) reluctantly come forward and admit they accidentally let Spunky get away from them while building a pen for the animal. No charges are filed against Wilbur, and Fonzie even vows to get the child another dog as a reward. All's well that ends well.
Under the current circumstances, though, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Wilbur was largely arrested because he was black. The episode's one policeman, Officer Porter (Tom Dever), seems very willing to believe the worst about Wilbur. Fortunately, a potential tragedy was averted in this case, but it shouldn't have even gotten this close. "Spunky, Come Home" is a very cute episode, but it has some disturbing subtext.