Those coming to the Henry Winkler event on Nov. 17 at the Adath Israel synagogue in Toronto are in for a surprise if they think they are merely going to a “Farbrengen With The Fonz.”
Winkler may be best known for playing Arthur (Fonzie) Fonzarelli on Happy Days, but he’s had a five-decade-long acting career that includes numerous feature films – such as The Waterboy, Night Shift and Click – spent five years playing Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development and won an Emmy for his role in the current HBO series Barry. He’s also produced and directed a host of films and television shows over the years.
Known as “Hollywood’s leading mensch,” the dedicated husband, father and zayde is charming, erudite and generous in conversation. Having hit 73 last month, his career shows no signs of, well, “jumping the shark.”
You churn out an incredible amount of work at an age where you could have kicked back a long time ago …
Then the question comes up: why does one work? I seriously believe that if you stop being productive in whatever it is, if you stop being relevant on the earth, I don’t mean famous, I mean just productive, you will become a box of raisins.
How many speaking engagements do you fit in, given your workload?
Depending on my other work, I can do about 12 a year.
Without having to warn the readers of spoiler alerts, what exactly happens at one of your events?
Lots of pictures, lots of handshaking, lots of book signing, lots of reading from one of my children’s books during the talk, which can run from 25 minutes to an hour, depending on how utzy the audience is. This speech covers what I was told I would never achieve and here I am talking to you today.
I guess that relates to the 31 books that you have written, most of which are written for children suffering from learning disabilities, notably dyslexia, with which you have struggled. The hero in your stories is a dyslexic grade schooler named Hank Zipzer.
Zipzer became a TV series and the books are read around the world. There’s another four in the Ghost Buddy series, the theme of which is, “Don’t judge a book by your cover.” The ghost sounds mysteriously like the Fonz. Don’t know how that happened.
You might be the most famous dyslexic out there, going back to a time when the condition wasn’t even defined. It caused you some problems at school and at home.
A fifth of the population has some sort of learning challenge. And not only does it force you to work really hard to get somewhere in your studies, but it also eats away like a virus at your self-image, so you can find yourself not only sinking in your studies at school, but sinking in your self-esteem. My own parents, not understanding it, were continually pissed off.
But you got a mainstream education.
I got into Emerson College and graduated, having nearly flunked out in my first year, and then I went to the Yale drama school and lived the theme of my life, which are embodied in Theodor Herzl’s words, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
You were appointed as an honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 for your work in advancing awareness of learning disabilities. Did that take place at Buckingham Palace?
No, an American can’t pledge allegiance to the Queen. The ceremony happened at the embassy in Washington.
Do you have a very strong Jewish identity?
It has always been a constant. My children have all been bar and bat mitzvahed. We celebrate holidays together. Now it is more difficult because they have their own families. Aside from Thanksgiving, because I like the sandwich the day after, I really enjoy Passover. It really brings home the importance of who we are.
You were named after your uncle Helmut, who did not make it out of the Holocaust, unlike your mother and father who escaped Germany on the eve of the Second World War and grew up with the storied German Jewish community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It was a great, tight community and because we didn’t have much family, I had a lot of unrelated tantes.
I’m going to get a little technical for your more serious fans who might have preferred the single camera early seasons of Happy Days to the multi-camera years with a live audience. Fonzie seemed to change once the laugh track came in. The nuance of the character was gone.
No, he didn’t change. It takes three days to shoot a one-camera episode, and with multi-camera, we started at 9 a.m. Monday and finished Friday night at midnight. The process is the same, but with the one camera, you have very little rehearsal and you have to make instant choices, so that’s why I say that going to school and studying the craft is important. As for the Fonz, in front of an audience, I had to notch it up, I had to be more presentational, but aside from that, his nature did not change.
They say the Fonz was inspired by your work with Sylvester Stallone in the independent film, The Lords of Flatbush, which you shot before Happy Days.
I always liked Sly. He’s a very smart guy and a great actor, director, producer and man. I will say that whenever I needed a reaction, I often just went, “Heyyyy.”
I have to ask about the notorious “jumping the shark” episode, in which Fonzie jumps a corralled shark on water skis, while wearing his leather jacket. The phrase, now used to describe TV series that resort to a ludicrous stunt that signals creative bankruptcy and looming cancellation, is one of the legacies of Happy Days.
Three things about that episode. First, my father, a very short German Jew, told me to tell Gary Marshall (the producer) for months, “Tell’im you vater ski. Tell’im you vater ski,” because I was a water ski instructor at summer camp. So I told Gary that “My father wants you to know that I water ski.” I don’t know if there’s a correlation or not, but all of a sudden, there we were in Hollywood water skiing. I did all of the water skiing, except for the jump. Second, if you go back and watch the episode, when I let go of the rope after the stunt, I was smiling – half was me as the Fonz and half as me just having fun. It was a great moment. Third, we ran for six seasons after that, so we really didn’t jump the shark.
Not to mention the fact that 30-million people watched that episode and we are talking about it 40 years later. Now you’re shooting the second season of Barry starring Bill Hader, for which you did win the Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series, even though it rarely has 600,000 viewers. Some paradox there?
Things have changed in television and pay channels like HBO allow for a lot more creative freedom. Alec Berg and Bill Hader are brilliant, inclusive writers and delivered eight extremely tight scripts for the first season. The pace of work goes back to the first seasons of Happy Days, because its single-camera and I have to bring all my skills to the table. I love it.
Lastly, I just finished a script and I was wondering …
Sorry, my plate is full, but thank you and I’m looking forward to coming back to Toronto.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.