Cathy Silvers is so much like Jenny Piccalo that ''it’s frightening''
Her first day on set of Happy Days, she was so nervous, Fonzie had to lift her off the ground and hold her to stop her shaking.
For seven seasons, Jenny Piccalo was a ghost on Happy Days, the friend who serves as a bad influence on Joanie who is mentioned but never seen.
When it came time for the audience to finally meet Jenny Piccalo in the flesh, a young unknown actor named Cathy Silvers was chosen for the part. Nobody knew her face, but everybody in Hollywood knew her last name.
Silvers' dad was Phil Silvers, one of the first major classic TV stars on his hit show The Phil Silvers Show where he famously played Sgt. Bilko.
Cathy felt she had learned comedy at her father’s knee, because he was so funny around the house and always pushing his five daughters to return his sharp wit with barbs of their own.
But Cathy had never acted on TV before, having just been cast in her first college play when her mother invited along actor Dudley Moore to catch her performance. Moore was so impressed, he hooked Cathy up with his agent who within two weeks got her signed as Jenny Piccalo on Happy Days.
It was a whirlwind, and Cathy told Gannett News Service in 1985 that she was not prepared for her closeup.
"When I did my first show on Happy Days, I was shaking so hard Henry Winkler had to take me in his arms and literally lift me off the ground and just hold me, to stop my body from shaking," Cathy said. "It was pitiful … everyone was welcoming, and of course it got much better after awhile. But nobody could’ve helped me that first year. I was – very nervous."
Once Cathy shook the nerves, she fell into the role easily, in part because she said there wasn’t that much difference between playing Jenny Piccalo and being herself.
"Jenny was so like me it’s frightening … honest, obnoxious and with an answer for everything," Cathy said.
In an interview with The Washington Post in 1981, a year into her time on Happy Days, Cathy described Jenny as "a trouble-causer, a boy-chaser, a loudmouth who chews a lot of gum. She’s real spunky."
Now we know that Joanie’s worst influence as a friend actually existed in real life offscreen as Cathy Silvers saw herself in this spunky character.
Silvers played Jenny Piccalo from 1980 to Happy Days' end in 1984, and by 1981, she’d finally relaxed into the part, no longer shaking in front of Fonzie and even starting to enjoy her time with Fonzie and the gang onset.
"It is fun to play Jenny, because there’s so much room for growth," Cathy told The Washington Post. "I would like to make her into a more settled human being, a more normal girl. I’d like to calm her down as she gets into the show."
Growing up as Phil Silvers’ daughter, Cathy said it was her dad who helped her grow as an actor and conquer her nerves, but maybe not in the way you might expect.
"My dad told me, 'Use your nerves and your adrenalin for your performance. Don’t fight it. Use it,'" Cathy told The Tampa Tribune in 1986. "So I keep that in mind. It makes a big difference."