Erin Moran, who played Joanie Cunningham on hit sitcom Happy Days, likely died from Stage 4 cancer, say the authorities involved in her case.
The actor, who died at age 56 on Saturday, had suffered from mental health problems over the years, which led some outlets to speculate that she committed suicide or overdosed on drugs. (Even former co-star Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz, seemed to hint at Moran’s past as the culprit. Gunsmoke co-star Willie Aames also referred to her “troubled” life.)
Those theories can now be squelched; the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department released a statement Monday, saying an autopsy revealed Moran had Stage 4 cancer, which likely killed her. The statement didn’t specify what type of cancer Moran had.
“A subsequent autopsy revealed that Mrs. Moran likely succumbed to complications of Stage 4 cancer,” the statement said.
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The department says Moran died Saturday in the rural community of New Salisbury, about 20 miles northwest of Louisville, Ky. Officials say standard toxicology test results are pending, but that no illegal narcotics were found at the home.
A Burbank, Calif. native, Moran began acting in TV and movies before she was 10 years old. She had several years of experience when she was cast in 1974 in Happy Days as Joanie, the kid sister to high school student Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard. Other cast members included Tom Bosley and Marion Ross as Joanie’s parents, and Winkler.
Happy Days castmates (and other TV royalty from the time) expressed their condolences about Moran’s passing.
“What happened with all of us was like we were this family,” Moran told Xfinity in 2009. “It was so surreal with all the cast members… They were my family, get it?”
Moran played the same character in early ’80s sitcom Joanie Loves Chachi, a short-lived spinoff with Happy Days co-star Baio. In 2012, Moran was one of the Happy Days actors who won money in a merchandising payment lawsuit against CBS.
Her more recent credits included The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote, but she never approached the success of Happy Days and was more often in the news for her numerous personal and financial struggles. Some reports say she was occasionally homeless.
Baio changed his tune Monday with remarks once again insinuating that Moran’s death was the result of drinking and drug abuse.
“I’m OK, a little shocked… but not completely shocked that this happened,” he said in an interview on The Bernie & Sid Show. “My thing is, I feel bad because her whole life, she was troubled, could never find what made her happy and content. For me, you do drugs or drink, you’re gonna die. I’m sorry if that’s cold, but God gave you a brain, gave you the will to live and thrive, and you gotta take care of yourself.”
— With files from The Associated Press