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Don Most Talks Happy Days, Star Trek, Directing Shailene Woodley, and His New Film Duality

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Don Most Talks <i>Happy Days</i>, <i>Star Trek</i>, Directing Shailene Woodley, and His New Film <i>Duality</i>

It’s not that uncommon for an actor or two from a successful television show to become so associated with their characters that they have trouble escaping that perception in their later careers. But it’s pretty uncommon when a show, even a legendary one like Happy Days, produces an entire cast that experiences that phenomenon. You can ask Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Erin Moran, or most anybody else from Happy Days how difficult that quandary can be. But although Don Most’s Ralph Malph was one of the most distinctive and memorable characters on the show, he’s nonetheless been pretty successful in carving out a career independent of Happy Days. But it didn’t come easy. Most spoke with us recently about Ralph Malph, Star Trek, directing Shailene Woodley in her first role, and his role in, the new short film, Duality.

Paste Magazine: How you doing, Don?
Don Most: I’m good. How are you?

Paste: Great. I appreciate your time. I’d like to ask you about life and career stuff, but I want to hear about Duality, as well. Can you tell me about how you became involved with the project?
Most: It was a pretty serendipitous occasion. I have a very good friend who’s been in the music business a long time. His name is Larry Lee. He’s done work for me on some of the films that I have directed. His son is a major chef here in L.A. He works at a place called the Scratch Bar, and he was featured on a TV show for Food Network. They asked me to come down to the restaurant, and he introduced me to some of his friends. I got a call a couple of days later from Larry. He said that his friend was directing a short film, and that he thought that I’d be great in it. He wanted to set up a meeting with me, so I did.

I read the script. It’s a short film, so there’s not a lot of time for any of the characters. My character was on-screen the shortest time of all out of the three major characters. After talking to the director, I felt good about his creative process and the way he thought and spoke about it. It was good because he ended up adding elements to my character. He embellished it a bit and made the character really fun to play. So, ultimately that’s how it all came about. I got involved by going to my friend’s son’s restaurant.

Paste: (Both laugh) That’s pretty crazy. You never know what’s going to happen when you go out in L.A.
Most: Yeah, you just never know where things are going to come from!

Paste: Tell me about the experience in acting in Duality. I’ve got to think that acting in something as surreal and as “stream of consciousness” as this short would be different than acting in something more realistic.
Most: That’s an interesting question. Yes, a little bit. The material in the short was surreal and metaphysical, so the reality was slightly askew. I would get certain feelings about the scene from reading it. It would spark the imagination in a different way. It opened up your choices to go in directions you wouldn’t normally think of as an actor. It was different in that regard. I had two scenes in one time frame. Then I had another scene in a parallel world that was in another time frame… I was on a path up in the hills, and I was wearing a black tunic and holding a walking stick… it was a very mysterious encounter. I had a British accent in that scene, which was fun. You just had to let yourself go as an actor and flow with the moment. It’s important to always be in the moment as an actor, with everything you do. I sort of freed my mind up with this role. It’s hard to explain.

Paste: I can see where the subject matter and the general tone would lend itself to that. I would assume that, to some extent, that is something you can take with you to other forms of acting.
Most: Yeah. I experienced that. Going through this experience may have opened up certain creative regions in my brain that I had never used before.

Paste: So, you grew up in Brooklyn, right? What did your mom or dad do? What kind of childhood did you have?
Most: It was a very normal childhood. My father was an accountant, and my mother was a homemaker. We lived in an apartment building. I went to the public school where Barbara Streisand went. I started getting the “performance bug” at a pretty young age. Initially, it was singing. I saw The Jolson Story when I was about nine, and it had a huge effect on me. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I convinced my parents that I wanted to do something with that.

They found a school in Manhattan that was run by an old vaudevillian performer named Charlie Lowe and his wife. They had a studio where they would teach kids singing. And I had to learn tap dancing. I wound up getting picked to be a part of his professional review. There were eight of us who would perform at nightclubs. There was one summer when I had just turned fifteen. We were staying in a hotel in the mountains that was a big area for singers and comedians—people like Jerry Lewis, big names in the industry played up there. It was a blast for me to perform there.

I appreciate my father’s wisdom now more than ever, but for some reason he didn’t see what I was doing at that time as my true path. He felt that I should study acting more and give up singing. Maybe I wasn’t that good of a singer… I don’t know. (laughs) So, that’s when I started taking acting classes. We found somebody in the city that had a great reputation, so I joined a workshop for several years.

After that, I went to college, but I didn’t major in Theater. My parents wanted me to have a backup plan in case acting didn’t work out. The teacher of the workshop introduced me to a woman who was a manager, so she started managing my career. I started getting professional work when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. At first, I was doing a lot of big, national commercials. Commercials were my introduction to working in front of the camera. All of my acting classes had been more theater based. Learning to be in front of the camera was a big transition for me, and it was a great time to learn it at that age. I was also part of a theater group in college and did many plays with other local colleges as well. I was constantly commuting into the city for auditions. It was a three-hour commute back then.

Eventually, after my junior year, the girl who I was dating decided to go to L.A. I didn’t want to be away from her, so that’s what brought me to L.A. I was able to find an agent through some of the connections that I had from working in New York. I was planning to go back to school for my senior year, but I landed several acting parts right away through my agency and decided to stay. Things were starting to pick up, and I didn’t want to lose the momentum, so I decided to put off school for six months.

I flew home to go to my sister’s wedding and was supposed to go to school just a few days after that, but I didn’t go back. I knew that my parents would be concerned, but I was operating on a different wavelength back then. There was no thinking involved. I felt like I had to try. Literally, I flew back to L.A. two days later. I met a couple of people in L.A. over the summer, but for the most part, I didn’t know anybody. After the first few months, I started questioning whether or not I had made a mistake in moving there because I had been to many auditions, but nothing was hitting. That’s when the audition for Happy Days happened.

Paste: I definitely want to talk with you about Happy Days, but first and foremost, I just have to say, I saw on your IMDb page that when you were in your early twenties you played Tom Sawyer in a made-for-TV-movie. When I saw that, I grinned ear to ear; I’ve never seen that movie, but I can totally picture you as Tom Sawyer. What a perfect Don Most part! There’s that exuberance, with a little bit of mischievousness … it just seems like a really good fit for you. But, what amazes me the most is that you were able to get that part at age twenty-two! Were you just really, really baby-faced at that point?
Most: Haha… yeah. To a good extent, yes. But I did the movie with Ron Howard. Ron Howard was Huck Finn.

Paste: Oh wow, that’s fantastic!

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