Actor Tom Bosley, shown in February 1990, was best known as Howard Cunningham in Happy Days. He died Tuesday. ((Bob Galbraith/Associated Press))

Tom Bosley, the American actor best known for playing the patient, understanding father on Happy Days, has died. He was 83.

Bosley died Tuesday of heart failure at a hospital near his home in Palm Springs after a battle with lung cancer.

As Howard Cunningham in Happy Days, which debuted in 1974, Bosley brought understated humour to the role of the exasperated father of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard).

Bosley recalled in a 1986 interview that he at first turned down the role in the series about teen life in the 1950s.

"After rereading the pilot script, I changed my mind because of a scene between Howard Cunningham and Richie. The father/son situation was written so movingly, I fell in love with the project," he said.

After Happy Days, which ran 11 seasons, made him a well-loved face, Bosley went on to the recurring role of Sheriff Amos Tucker on Murder She Wrote.

He also played the crime-solving priest on Father Dowling Mysteries and had a long career as a voice actor on animated programs such as Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, The World of David the Gnome and The Tangerine Bear.

Chicago-born Bosley served in the navy in the Second World War and went to DePaul University in Chicago, where he made his stage debut in Our Town.

In the late 1940s, he had a stage career that took him to Broadway, where he won a Tony Award in 1959 as New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia in the long-running Broadway musical Fiorello!

His early film roles included Love with a Proper Stranger, Love American Style and The Triangle Factory Fire. He also had numerous small screen roles on Get Smart, the Debbie Reynolds Show, Mission Impossible and more recently, Family Guy.

His last film role was as Arthur in The Back-up Plan. 

Bosley is survived by his wife, Patricia Bosley, his brother Richard Bosley, his daughter Amy Baer, stepdaughters Kimberly diBonaventura and Jamie Van Meter and seven grandchildren.

With files from The Associated Press