Tom Bosley was moved by the film version of On Golden Pond when it came out in 1981, but in a different way than most people.
It wasn't the story of the Thayer family, but that of the Fonda family that affected him.
"I knew Henry Fonda, and I had known Jane a little bit," he said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "Because of political differences they didn't speak to each other for years. So when I was watching them, I said 'Is this a movie or is this an attempt by a father and daughter to re-establish a relationship?' "
Now Bosley, who's best known as playing the affable Howard Cunningham on TV's Happy Days, is playing Norman Thayer, the role Henry Fonda made famous, in a stage production of On Golden Pond that comes to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this week.
"Even though I had seen the movie, I wasn't overly moved by the story until they sent me the script," he said.
He'll be playing opposite a woman who's also firmly associated with a long-time television role: Michael Learned, who for 10 years portrayed the matriarch of the Walton clan.
"For me, what this play has done is help me understand my own father," said Learned, also speaking from her L.A. home. "I think Tom is a little more avuncular in the part than Henry Fonda was, so what I think you get is the insecurity behind the curmudgeon."
Ernest Thompson's play centers around an aging couple, aware that they're approaching the closing chapter of their lives, who spend a final summer at a family cabin in Maine. They're visited by their daughter, who's on her way to Europe. She leaves her fiance's adolescent son with her parents when she goes. The result is an examination of intergenerational and interpersonal connections and estrangements.
The 1981 film drew attention both for the depth of the poignant, warmly funny script (which briefly made "suck face" a catchphrase) and for the quality of performances (Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn both won Oscars). It also marked the only time Henry and Jane Fonda appeared together on screen, and turned out to be Henry Fonda's last big-screen role (and one of the last major roles for Hepburn).
Neither Bosley nor Learned is especially concerned with overcoming the film's legacy, partly because neither of them has seen the film in a quarter-century.
"I didn't want to see it again," Learned said. "Katharine Hepburn is such an amazing actress, I just knew I wouldn't be able to get her performance out of my head."
Overcoming their popular identities as Mr. Cunningham and Mrs. Walton might be a bit of a hurdle, even though both have extensive and impressive credits outside their signature roles. But Bosley said his association with Happy Days also gives him an objective measure of his success as Norman Thayer.
"When people come up to me after the show and tell me they saw something besides Mr. Cunningham," he said, "well, then I know I've done something."
On Golden Pond
At the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Carol Morsani Hall, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $26.50-$62.50 plus service charge. (813) 229-7827 or tbpac.org.