September 22, 2018

Donny Most: Happy Days Are Here Again — in Music

More than acting, directing and producing, Donny Most’s greatest joy is singing. Widely known for playing the comic character Ralph Malph on the long-running TV sitcom hit “Happy Days,” Most has reinvented his career with a concert tour called “Donny Most Sings and Swings,” in which he sings big-band-era-style songs during a two-hour show.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Most cut his teeth performing in the Catskills. He has performed multiple times at the local jazz clubs, Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood and Vitello’s in Studio City, as well as other venues around the country.

Most, 64, lives in Westlake Village with his wife of 36 years, Morgan. They have two daughters.

Jewish Journal: When did you realize you loved music and singing, and when did you believe you had talent as a singer?

Donny Most: It really started for me when I saw the movie “The Jolson Story” when I was 9 years old. The movie and Jolson’s singing had a very strong impact on me. I bought a bunch of his albums and would sing along to them over and over. My interest in this music led me to learn about many of the legendary singers of the Great American Songbook, like Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin. I wound up taking singing lessons at a school in NYC when I was around 13 or 14, and when I was picked to be part of a professional review performing in the Catskill Mountains at age 15, I knew I might have what it takes.

JJ: How and when did the idea of the concert tour come about?

DM: It was about 4 1/2 years ago. I had put my music aside when I shifted my focus to acting in my late teens, and this kind of music was falling out of favor during this period of profound change. Because the jazz standards have come back, it hit me that if I was ever going to do this music again, now was the time.

Because the jazz standards have come back, it hit me that if I was ever going to do this music again, now was the time.

JJ: Are audiences surprised when they see the actor who played Ralph Malph, a comic character, belting out jazz and swings tunes?

DM: Yes. People who haven’t heard my CD or seen any videos from my live performances are definitely surprised when they come to one of my concerts. They are constantly saying, “We had no idea you could sing like this.” They tell me they were “blown away” and things like that, which is, of course, always nice to hear.

JJ: Did you entertain at family bar mitzvah celebrations when you were growing up?

DM: Well, I got up with the band during my own bar mitzvah and sang a Jolson song. I’m pretty sure I did the same kind of thing at several of my friends’ and relatives’ bar mitzvahs as well.

JJ: What did you learn from performing in the Borscht Belt as a teen?

DM: I got to sing in front of different audiences, with different bands, in different nightclubs about three to five times a week all summer. It’s hard to quantify what that learning experience was, but I know it taught me a lot.

JJ: What is your favorite song to perform and why?

DM: That’s a tough question, as I love so many of the songs. But when I became a huge Bobby Darin fan when I was young, I loved singing along with him to his great version of “Mack the Knife.” To this day, I feel like it’s in my blood.

JJ: In 2009, you starred in the movie “The Yankles,” portraying the father of a yeshiva student. Did being Jewish help you in this role?

DM: I’m sure it helped, as that background and experience informed me quite a bit. Even though I did not go to a yeshiva, I knew people that did. I had interactions with that world, knew the culture, etc. So having that kind of knowledge and connection always helps you as an actor.

JJ: Any causes near and dear to you?

DM: My wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 16 years ago, so we have been involved in many fundraising events for Parkinson’s. One organization we have worked with on several occasions is the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Also the Keck School of Medicine at USC, where my wife’s doctor does research.

JJ: How about if we wrap up this Q-and-A with your signature line from Happy Days?

DM: Even in 2018 — I still got it!


Stacy Karten is a former sports and contributing editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times.