Heather O'Rourke almost didn't do Happy Days
Joining the hit show so late in its run was viewed as a risky career move, but the pint-sized blonde and rising star gained confidence acting across from the Fonz.
On Happy Days, little Heather Pfister played a big part in helping audiences see Fonzie not just as a cool guy, but as a father figure.
Appearing in a dozen episodes, Heather O'Rourke played the role of Heather Pfister after a whirlwind rise as an actor that started when Steven Spielberg discovered her eating lunch in the MGM Studios commissary.
The story goes that O'Rourke's older sister was acting in a movie, and Heather and their mom were visiting her on set.
Spielberg was passing through when he spotted Heather eating lunch and stopped in his tracks. Without delay, he asked Heather's mom if she could audition for his next movie.
O'Rourke told the story of this momentous day to The San Bernardino County Sun in 1986.
The movie turned out to be Poltergeist and the role turned out to be Carol Anne. It was only a few days later when O'Rourke was officially cast in her first role ever in a major motion picture by one of the biggest directors of all time.
"There's something about her," Spielberg told Heather's mom at the time. "I don't know what it is, but I like her."
Soon, Heather had a manager named Mike Meyer who told The Philadelphia News in 1988 that "what it was" that Spielberg sensed was Heather's astounding maturity.
"She was really mature," Meyer said. "A lot of the most frightening scenes that appear in the films are shot in a bare room with only a blue screen as background. But I still got spooked seeing those movies. Heather said to me: 'You know how they’re done. How can you be scared?'"
While O'Rourke was filming Poltergeist, she had an even more memorable encounter in the commissary than meeting Spielberg, if you can believe it.
At the time, O'Rourke idolized not the Fonz, but Rocky and Rambo star Sylvester Stallone, who was also filming at MGM Studios when he spotted the pint-sized blonde and also walked over to say hello.
"He came over and said, 'Hi, it's nice to meet you' and kissed my hand," O’Rourke said. "I was speechless. I thought 'I'm never going to wash this hand.'"
Next to Stallone, the Fonz was the next coolest thing in the 1980s, though, and within a month of being cast on Poltergeist, O'Rourke was cast on Happy Days.
Her mom said letting O'Rourke do this role was viewed as a risk because Happy Days was so close to ending. In the end, though, it turned out to be the best thing for the rising young actor.
"A lot of people said we shouldn't have done Happy Days because the show had only one more season and it was up against The A-Team, but I think working on that show helped her gain confidence," O'Rourke's mom said.
In 1983, O'Rourke made her final appearance on Happy Days in an episode called "Turn Around … And You're Home."
Living in Big Bear, California, in a house O'Rourke's acting career paid for, O'Rourke continued acting while attending public school.
Unlike many child actors who are bullied for their fame, O'Rourke said kids viewed her as just another kid in class, and they never even teased her or asked her to repeat her most famous Poltergeist line, "They're heeere!"
Opposite of being bullied, she was popular and elected class president as a fifth-grader.
She appeared on more family sitcoms like Webster and The New Leave It to Beaver, but then in 1988, she tragically passed away from cardiac arrest at the age of 12.
It was a big loss to everyone who saw what Spielberg saw in the young talent, who, because of his movie and the enduring popularity of Happy Days, had become a familiar face to many.
O'Rourke said she quickly got used to adults coming up to her and asking her to repeat her famous Poltergeist line, but she never quite adjusted to being someone who people on the street became actually afraid to approach.
"They'll look at me once," O’Rourke said. "Then they'll ask me if I was the little girl in Poltergeist or on Happy Days. If they stare at me without saying anything, then I think that something's wrong with my appearance. But then I realize they're staring at me because they recognize me."