Actor-producer-author Henry Winkler talks about the Fonz, life after “Happy Days,” and how he’s connecting with a new generation of fans.
Somewhere between Kermit the Frog and J.R. Ewing is the place where Arthur Fonzarelli, aka The Fonz, exists in the public consciousness, an iconic television creation that transcended its Disco Era origins, long outliving its series run – and other “boob tube” programming of the day, like, uh, Me and the Chimp or Fernwood 2 Night.
Brought to life by Henry Winkler, the soft-spoken, richly articulate actor-producer-author, The Fonz was the epitome of cool, for certain, but with a heart of gold – Rebel Without A Cause’s Jim Stark without the furrowed brow and penchant for street racing, Grease’s Danny Zuko without the snappy choreography and sassy tenor. A role model, in other words, more sweet than sulking, more sunshine than Weltschmerz.
Today, Winkler, 70, is enjoying a career renaissance, appearing on Children’s Hospital, Royal Pains, Arrested Development, and in a good number of Adam Sandler films (starting with The Waterboy). It was recently announced that Winkler has been cast as the acting coach and spiritual guru of Saturday Night Live vet Bill Hader’s frustrated Midwestern hitman on the HBO pilot, Barry. Additionally, Winkler is the ink and quill behind two bestselling series of children’s books, Here’s Hank and Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever, an inspirational, frequently hilarious, semi-autobiographical franchise about a young boy in New York grappling with the first pangs of adolescence and the challenges of being dyslexic.
Literacy and arts education are paramount to Winkler who, decades into a storied career, remains perennially grateful for the kindnesses extended to him – not only by Hollywood producers and New York publishing big-wigs, but also his grade school teachers, family members, and key collaborators (like Happy Days costar Ron Howard) through the years. We think that’s pretty “perfectamundo.”
While working onscreen a good deal in recent years, you’ve also made enormous commitments to arts education for public school students. Why is that important to you?
The arts really matter in education. Sometimes the arts are the only way a student is unlocked. Sometimes it’s the only way a student can communicate. Maybe math is hard for a student. Maybe writing is hard or science is hard. Spelling is out of the question. But through the voice or the body or the imagination or the musical instrument, maybe that student is able to unfurl his soul to the rest of the world. Yes, I’m talking about myself. The arts help complete a person. I truly believe that. And since I started working on June 30, 1970, I have never, not once, used geometry.
So many of us know you as Fonzie, the King of Cool. It may come as a surprise to many that you struggled academically.
I almost didn’t get to have the job I have today. At my school, if you didn’t have a certain GPA, you couldn’t do arts, and I was dyslexic. I struggled a lot. But I was allowed to perform, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am for that.
Your bestselling series of children’s novels, Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever, is terrific and actually pulls back the veil a bit on your academic struggles.
Yes, it’s kind of the autobiography of my childhood. The humor is exaggerated, but the emotions are real, and I pander to no one. The greatest parts of my career have been receiving letters from students who feel like someone finally understands them. I can’t tell you what that means to me.
After high school, you earned an MFA from Yale. You did Shakespeare! Not bad for a kid who could barely read.
If I was there in that time in England and I auditioned for Shakespeare, he would’ve suggested I go home and make hats. But it was important for me to try, and I absolutely cherish the works of Shakespeare. I think you have to know your classics to be good at comedy. Comedy isn’t just timing; it’s about rooting out the funny in the real. You just bend reality to the left a little. Some of us are born to play Shakespeare, and some of us need Shakespeare to know which way to bend.
So there’s, perhaps, a bit of Mercutio in The Fonz?
Well, I have that background, so there’s probably a little bit of Shakespeare in everything I do. (Laughs) I should be so lucky! What I know is this: because of my training back then, I am able to go left and find the humor in just about anything – and that includes life itself. I do not take that for granted.
With that kind of education comes a certain versatility, yes?
Yes! Definitely! You get it! (Laughs) I’ve reinvented myself when necessary. No one wants to drift off into the paint or the wallpaper. So now and again, you look around and see where you fit in and what you have to offer.
It’s been a long time since audiences have seen Fonzie, one of the most popular characters ever to appear on television. What do you think The Fonz would be up to today?
I think he would own a Mr. Goodwrench, a chain of stores. He was a pretty ambitious fellow and he was really good at what he did. He’d be doing all right for himself and taking care of the people he loves.
Any words of wisdom from The Fonz?
I live by two words: tenacity and gratitude. You could try that out. Results may vary, but they will not disappoint.