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."

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19 Comments

Snickers 30 months ago
How sad this talented young girl lost her life at such a young age.
tootsieg 30 months ago
Very sad. I did not know Heather O’Rourke died so young. She was very funny on Happy Days.
George57 31 months ago
I saw photos of how the medication made her appear bloated before her ending. It was so tragic to hear that she passed away at such a young age.
TinkRoss 31 months ago
All of the kids from the Poltergeist movie ended up dying at a young age. I always felt something was up with that. Very strange.
country46 31 months ago
kind of creepy dying at such a young age after the parts she had
JimmyD 31 months ago
I didn't know she was the Poltergeist girl, or maybe I did at some point but forgot. 12 is too young to go.
MrsPhilHarris 31 months ago
This is just my opinion, but I don’t like to hear little kids are mature. It makes me think something happened to them to make them be mature. Little kids should be little kids.
bagandwallyfan52 31 months ago
Every time an actor or actress
On Happy Days passes away I
Am very sad and Heather O'
Rourke was a very talented
Actress who passed away way
To Soon..
RIP
Heather O'Rourke
When I Travel to Heaven
Sometime in the future I
With. Look forward to seeing all of the Happy Days Cast who have passed away:
Heather O' Rourke
Al Molinaro
Pat Morita
Beatrice Colen
Tom Bosley
Ed Peck
vinman63 bagandwallyfan52 31 months ago
We forget Chuckie Cunningham (Gavan John O'Herlihy ) who left us in 2012.
I just found out that
GAVAN O'HERLIHY who
Played CHUCK CUNNINGHAM
On HAPPY DAYS on
Season One Only Passed
Away at age 70 a few weeks ago on October 21
2021 .I didnt know that
Gavan O Herlihy passed away or I would have included him on the
Happy Days RIP List.
If a METV viewer had not
Said that he passed away
O still wouldn't know it
Because I never heard any
Announcements that he passed away on the TV news or newspapers.
I am glad that the late
Garry Marshall invited
BOTH Chuck Cunningham s
(Gavan O Herlihy and Randolph Roberts) to be
Special Guests on the
30th Anniversary of Happy Days Special on ABC.
I wish that the character of
Chuck Cunningham had not
Vanished into thin air on Happy Days in 1975.
Gavan O Herlihy
Chuck Cunningham
Happy DAYS
REST in Peace
You were a great actor Gavan!!!!!
I hope that METV will write
An RIP Article About
Gavan O Herlihy Chuck Cunningham (1954-2021)
RIP
bagandwallyfan52 vinman63 31 months ago
Correction
Gavan O Herlihy Chuck Cunningham passed away on October 21 2021 .
Runeshaper 31 months ago
It's so sad that she passed away that young. I'm glad she had some fun before she left us.
LoveMETV22 31 months ago
Liked her role on Poltergeist, and that was nice that Sylvester Stallone took a moment to meet with her.
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