From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
This is how close a kid in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn came to forsaking his shot at teen dreamdom for an adolescence of flailing sawed-off broomsticks at bouncing pink Spaldeens. "I was 12 and I was fed up with the business," says Scott Baio, now 21, then a veteran of a dozen TV commercials and myriad casting calls. "We lived near the Verrazano Bridge. All my auditions were after school and they were in midtown Manhattan and rush hour is not a fun time to be in traffic. Besides, that was the only time I had to play. I said to my mother, 'Mom, hey, this is crazy. I quit.'

"So the next call from my manager happened to be on a rainy day. He says, 'I think you should go to this one. It just feels right for you. Go meet the director.' It was raining. No stickball that day. So I met Alan Parker. And that was it. Bugsy Malone. Three months in England. Phew. I guess I got lucky."

Guess? As it turned out, Baio spent those years growing into one of America's hardest-working teen talents. He's also been handled wisely for the last five years by his used car dealer-turned-manager father, Mario, 50. For all of that time Baio was Chachi on Happy Days, pulling more and more of the show's avalanche of fan mail; Scott's take by the end was 5,000 letters a week. He's thrown himself into five Battle of the Network Stars (he holds the record for the obstacle course). And he's sought—and earned—his actor stripes in such well-received TV dramas as The Boy Who Drank Too Much, Stoned, and Run, Don't Walk and the film Foxes, again with Bugsy co-star Jodie Foster.

Though he kept plugging away with tutors, passing enough correspondence courses to earn his diploma from Brooklyn's Catholic Xaverian High, Scott no longer asks himself what he'll do when he grows up. His network, ABC, took care of that. Scott and his Happy Days girlfriend, Erin Moran, have been cell-divided into their own sitcom, Joanie Loves Chachi, which last spring scored stunning ratings in its four pilot episodes. The show, centered on their romance and quest for stardom as singers, debuted last week and is already touted as one of the new season's winners.

More surprising is Baio's self-effacement and nonchalance in the face of such Nielsen hysteria. In his parents' Studio City, Calif. home, where he still lives, a T-shirt hangs on the wall of the downstairs den. On the front is printed the overnight ratings showing JLC's whopping share of the audience. "Yeah, we're doin' all right," says Baio, walking in from the pool in trunks showing off a flabless frame stretched to a taut 5'10", 140 pounds. But he is not overawed. During the year the show was in the making, Scott says he "never thought about it to the point where I got crazy. My attitude was, 'If it happened, it happened.' I'm glad it did."

Though he and Moran will appear on several Happy Days episodes this fall, Baio's departure from that family has turned Henry Winkler wistful. "I miss him and love him very much," says the Fonz, who was an affectionate older brother to Baio through his teens on the set and guested on the season opener of JLC last week. "He was a boy when he started and now he's a man. It was time for him to fly."

Soar is more like it. Baio is also visible in a cable (Showtime) production of Albert Innaurato's play Gemini. His first LP, a safely formulaic but surprisingly pleasant collection of pop-rock (including the single "What Was in That Kiss"), didn't exactly scorch the charts; but he is the sole plausible excuse for the current runaway success of the feature film Zapped!, in which he plays a high school science whiz whose telekinetic powers guide baseballs over fences and clothes off girls' bodies. While the album offered him "a rush second only to acting, since I never even sang in the shower or to the radio," top-billed Scott was afraid to see the film. "In TV you always know what something's going to look like. Not features. It always takes me a long time to see something I did." Despite his detachment, Scott has no qualms about Embassy Pictures' decision to ensure heftier grosses by reediting the film from PG to R (with mooning, some nudity and Scott's lust-in-the-lab scene with Felice Schachter). "They must know what they're doin'," says Baio. "It's makin' money and it's funnier as an R."

Rose and Mario Baio's youngest got his kicks as a kid in Bay Ridge—Saturday Night Fever country—by hanging out on the stoops with his mostly Italian middle-class chums, "jiggling doorknobs to scare baby-sitters we knew in the neighborhood. We got into more trouble than I could ever tell." He was a wiry natural jock—a pitcher with a "good curve" and a quarterback creamed by oncoming linemen "who shaved in second grade."

After the Bugsy breakthrough, Scott "saw every picture I could, and every one got the juices running about being an actor." By 1977 he was in Happy Days, and his father moved the family, including Scott's twin siblings, Steven and Stephanie, now 24, to L.A.

Steven, who sells office supplies, and Stephanie, an X-ray technician, though both single, have left the nest. The walls of the den and bedroom are filled with trophies and photos chronicling Scott's career. He went to night school at Los Angeles Valley College for a semester but quit. "I hope I never have time for college," says Scott. "Not that it's a bad idea, just that I hope to stay that busy."

A B.A. wouldn't substantially boost his earning potential. His Joanie Loves Chachi salary is estimated at $30,000 per episode. Though Mario Baio manages his son's financial and business affairs, Scott is "free to do whatever I want with my money. If I want something, I buy it." He certainly doesn't blow it on duds, preferring jeans and T-shirts.

Baio's weakness is for cars. He owns an '80 Mercedes 450 but is shopping for something in the Porsche-Ferrari market. "I love driving cars, looking at them, cleaning and washing and shining them. I clean 'em inside and outside. I'm very touchy about cars. I don't want anybody leaning on them or closing the door too hard, know what I mean?"

He is hardly less finicky about dating habits; though he's squired Kristy McNichol and Melissa Gilbert, Scott is currently unattached. He dislikes gold-diggers and casting-couchers. "You can tell five minutes into it what a girl is after, when she starts asking how much money I make or tells me, 'I wanna be an actress.' " Out too are loud partying and dancing. He goes more for sedate dinners or hanging out with his few close friends, who are mostly not actors. In women he goes for all types, but he says of his rumored romance with Brooke Shields, she is "just a friend, just a friend." Scott figures his dating days may end by his early 30s, when, he predicts, "I'll be married with kids." For now, though, "When I have a girlfriend, I feel caged in, I don't know why."

One woman who had him, sort of, then let him go was Moran, 22 this month. They kept their offscreen romance alive for about a year several seasons back. It has since mellowed and deepened into "best friend" status. "We're always physical on the set, hitting, pushing, wrestling. We have a very funny time together," says Scott. "There is a lot between us," agrees Erin, "more than we could ever reveal on TV. We got real close as boyfriend-girlfriend, but it wasn't right at the time and we both knew it. It was hard on both of us to separate. He had to go through his thing with girls. Girls were just crazy for him, and I couldn't take him away from that."

Taking him from home, she reckons, may be even harder, though Scott owns what she calls a "huge condo in the Valley" near her Sherman Oaks home "for when he needs time to himself." Moran, who split from live-in manager Michael Howard last year, has her own theory about Baio's family ties. "Scott doesn't want to live by himself," she says. "He doesn't have the pressure of coming home after work to an empty home. I come home to my cat." Security is another reason to stay among family. "I think because of who he is, it frightens him to be alone," says Moran. "He's been threatened by fans. He's a little afraid, and he loves his mom and dad and doesn't want his mom to worry. He says, 'If I lived alone, Mom'd never sleep because she wouldn't know I was okay.' "

Baio's career, at least, is indisputably okay. He's studying electric guitar and hopes to hit the road with a band and do another album. He's tied up with the new show through early '83 but already has scripts piling up. "I've been very fortunate and I am grateful," says Baio. "I can work every day of the year. TV is easy. My call's at 8:30 a.m. I'd like to break out of the comedy thing and take a shot at something serious like theater. The off-season allows me to do movies, but I'm not tired of TV yet. There's nothing like it. I've got the best of both worlds."

Asked to cite even a minor career disappointment, Baio rubs his chin and comes up with just a stumped frown. Only thoughts of his roots can make his eyes misty. "Remember how many friends everyone had back in New York?" he muses. "I'm a New Yorker. Here I got three friends, they're all a half-hour drive away. It's strange, so spread out here. I kinda miss that age and living in that neighborhood."