Happy Days created an entire episode around ballerina Leslie Browne
The ballerina rose to fame when she filled in for The Turning Point's injured star and then got nominated for an Oscar.
In 1978, Happy Days brought a ballerina onto the show to play Fonzie’s girlfriend in an episode called "Do You Want to Dance?"
But Happy Days didn’t want just any ballerina.
Producers put out a call for a "Leslie Browne type" after the American Ballet Theatre soloist shocked Hollywood by snagging an Oscar nomination for her first movie role ever in The Turning Point.
In 1977, The Turning Point created a ballet craze with its popular story based on the true friendship of real-life ballerinas Isabel Mirrow Brown and Nora Kaye.
Isabel happened to be the mother of Leslie Browne (who added an “e” to her last name because she thought it looked more feminine), and Kaye was Leslie’s godmother, but that didn’t mean that Leslie was immediately thought of for the role of her mother’s daughter in the movie, Emilia.
A different ballerina was cast originally. Her name was Gelsey Kirkland, and she was positioned to play the part until an injury prevented her from staying in the movie.
At that point, Leslie had been serving as Gelsey’s back-up, and it was eventually decided that rather than re-cast, they’d simply ask Leslie to fill in permanently.
“They auditioned a lot of girls for the part,” Browne told The Charlotte Observer in 1978. “Then two days before they had to start filming, they called and said they wanted me. I almost said no. I really didn’t want to do it. I was afraid that I wasn’t capable of it. But everyone encouraged me. They were all so nice that I started feeling better about it.”
Browne didn’t just feel better – she was better, and why wouldn’t she be? She proved a natural at playing the part of her mother’s daughter, go figure!
She was nominated for an Oscar, and just like that, she became not just a ballerina, but an actor, which is what she actually had wanted to do with her life before dancing took over.
“I do not want to be a ballet star,” Browne told The Washington Post in 1977.
She revealed that acting had been her real dream, but nothing prepared her for the overnight celebrity she experienced after The Turning Point became a hit movie.
“I hate it when people know me on the street,” Browne said. “I hate it when you go into a drug store and people put you first in line. You cannot imagine what it’s like. I have never been after a quote-unquote career.”
Despite the distaste for celebrity, Browne was amused when her agent called to tell her about the Happy Days casting call. She told her agent to reach out to producers and see what they thought, and just like that, she got her next acting role.
On Happy Days, Browne played Colleen, a ballet dancer who is pining to turn pro, but to do so means moving to New York. This freaks the Fonz out, because his girl should choose him over New York, right?
We all know now that things didn’t work out with Fonzie and Colleen, but for Browne, her acting career became much more selective after doing Happy Days.
She took on prominent roles in two ballet movies in the Eighties, and then pivoted her career again to become a ballet dance teacher and choreographer.
Having danced ballet since she was 8 years old in a family full of ballet dancers, Browne returned to her roots.
In the Seventies, when she was pondering an acting career, even then she knew that her future would never be fixed, because she had so many talents that she liked keeping her options open.
“I don’t want to plan a future, because I don’t want to be disappointed,” Browne said.