Reprint of an article that first appeared in TV Guide January 1976.
College didn’t prepare Henry Winkler for the role of Fonzie by Arnold Hano
In a phone booth on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, Henry Winkler is bargaining with Playboy magazine. Playboy wants to shoot a photo story of Winkler in his role as Fonzie, in the ABC nostalgia series Happy Days.
“I am flattered as can be,” Henry Winkler says over the phone, “but if you want to do ‘Fonzie,’ I will have to pass. The story will have to be me, not the character.” Playboy agrees, and Winkler hangs up triumphantly. He wants to be treated like a star.
It is barely possible that you know neither Henry Winkler nor the character he plays, Fonzie (full name Arthur Fonzarelli), the tough-talking, motorcycle-riding high school dropout on Happy Days. Happy Days has suddenly become a genuine hit in its second full year, possibly because of the beefing up of the role of Fonzie.
Winkler now receives co-star billing, just behind Ron Howard and Tom Bosley, and it is to Winkler that much of the show’s fan mail comes.”Women want to marry me,” he says. “People name dogs, cats, birds after Fonzie. I was asked to join Hell’s Angels. Fans send me gifts.”
Not that he needs gifts. Winkler’s salary has grown from several hundred dollars a week two years ago to several thousand a week today. “I love the fact I can go into a restaurant and I don’t have to order the $3.95 special.”
On personal-appearance tours, he is mobbed by young people. The first time he went on tour, he arrived at the Little Rock airport at 11:30 at night, and 2000 screaming people greeted him.
“A woman pasted herself to me, and I had to carry her like baggage.”
Winkler asked the woman, “You want to let go?”
“No,” she said. “I’ll never get this opportunity again.”
The crowds no longer number 2000. Winkler claims that more than 70,000 were on hand in Milwaukee. Whether there were actually that many or not, “It is a heightening experience,” he says.
Perhaps he needs heightening experiences. Winkler is 5 feet 6’/2 inches tall and weighs 134 pounds. At Dallas he got out of the studio-rented limousine and a girl said, “Oh, you’re so short.” Winkler related the incident to a
fan magazine, which promptly ran an article entitled “Is Fonzie Too Short For You?” Six thousand fans assured the editors he wasn’t.
There’s one more odd sign of stardom: rumors of his death. His sister, Beatrice, received a phone call last summer from Boston telling her that Henry had been killed. Later Winkler received articles from Australian magazines reporting his death in a car crash. An Omaha radio station had him dead from an overdose of drugs. Both AP and UPI recently phoned ABC-TV looking into rumors of his death. Winkler finds it all pretty funny. “It’s great. If people want to spend that much time on my death, I’m flattered.”
Actually, fame is not all that great, nor always funny. “Stardom is not easy to handle,” he says. “If you start thinking you’re more than you are, the cockiness will kill you.”
Winkler’s problem is that he thinks he’s less than he is. “Somewhere along the way, I decided I’m second rate. I’m not good enough. I’d like to be as self-confident as Fonzie.”
But he is not Fonzie and he understands the difference. “I know nothing about motorcycles. I have an education. Fonzie is a dropout. I refuse to be that macho in my life. Fonzie is afraid of nothing.”
Winkler is afraid of many things. When his New York agent said to him on September 1, 1973, “All right, Henry, it’s time for you to go to Hollywood,” Henry Winkler was terrified.
“What do they want with a short Jewish kid with a big nose?” he asked.
Henry Winkler is short and Jewish, but he’s not really a kid. He was 30 years old on October 30.
He was born in 1945, the only son of Harry and Use Winkler. Harry Winkler, with his wife, left Nazi Germany in 1939 and went to New York. The Winklers have always been reasonably wealthy. The family car was a Packard. Henry attended a private prep school when he wasn’t in school in Lausanne, Switzerland. Henry was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps. Do well in school. Take over the family lumber business.
Henry turned out to be a sensitive youngster, easily teased by friends. “I cried myself to sleep many nights. I’d think of killing myself, so they’d all be sorry.”
His decision to become an actor triggered a family fuss. “My father and I re-created all the great wars of history,” he says. “My mother was more subtle. She’d fix breakfast for me—eggs, toast and guilt.” As a result, doubt plagued him. “In college I knew I wasn’t good enough. When I auditioned for Yale to get my master’s in drama, I knew I wasn’t going to be accepted. The first day at Yale they told us. ‘A lot of you aren’t going to make it.’ I packed my bags.”
He was graduated from Yale in 1970 and immediately joined the Yale Repertory Theatre company, earning $175 a week. Later he did New York theater and made two films, which he describes as terrible. Radio and television commercials kept him alive. But it all began to change when his agent suggested he go to Hollywood. At first he balked.
“Every day for 16 days my agent would say ‘Go’ and I would say ‘No.’ ” He finally flew out on September 18, 1973, with a thousand dollars to last him a month. He lived on the cushions of a couch in a friend’s room. When the friend moved her boy friend in, Henry slept in the bathroom. But 17 days after he’d arrived, he went to work in a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode. Then came a Bob Newhart episode and the pilot of Friends and Lovers. On October 29, 1973, his agent, Joan Scott, sent him over to Paramount to read for Happy Days.
“I sat, waiting to be called. Micky Dolenz, from The Monkees, went in, his hair greased back like the ’50s. He was taller than I. Finally it was my turn. They said, ‘How are you?’ and I said, ‘See that sweat stain? That’s how
scared I am. What am I doing here? You don’t want me. You want a big shot.’ ” The next day—his 28th birthday—he was hired as Fonzie.
He took quick control of the role. In costume they wanted him to wear a cloth jacket and penny loafers. “How can I play a tough with penny loafers?” he asked.
“Oh,” they said, “we’ll raise the heel half an inch.” He flew back to New York and got his black boots. The cloth jacket became a leather jacket.
Fonzie’s success has given Winkler a springboard. He made a TV film, “Katherine,” and won critical acclaim. He has turned down two series offers, one an ABC-Paramount spinoff of the Fonzie character, and the other based on the New York cop Serpico. He says he’ll work two more years on Happy Days, then turn to feature films.
He is not always an easy actor to work with. In the Newhart episode, he didn’t like his lines, found he could not get the director to change them, and stormed off to one of the show’s producers, who told him to play them any way he wanted to. “The director hates me to this day,” Winkler says. Recently, on the Happy Days set, he discovered that some of his lines had been chopped out. Angered, he flung his script down and shouted, “They cut me out ofthe scene!” Ron Howard—who is a Winkler admirer—pulled Henry aside and told him to cool it.
Marion Ross, who plays the Happy Days mother, has also witnessed Winkler’s temperament. “When Henry feels crowded, he’ll make cutting, rude, sarcastic, remarks. When he directs them to me, I say, ‘I don’t like that. I don’t like you. Henry.'”
Most of the time Marion Ross likes and admires Henry very much. “I’m watching a young actor who’s going to be famous.”
Adulation—from his fans, from his peers—has come to Henry Winkler. Is this why he acts? “Part of it is adulation. But when I’m doing the work, I don’t think about the adulation. I think about creating the perfect character in the sky. About creating the perfect energy. What an artist can do with his paintbrush and his imagination and his eyes, I can do. My whole body is the paintbrush. I must do it all. I’m driven.”
Winkler lives in a bare one-bedroom apartment in West Los Angeles, with his stereo equipment and his 11 plants. He talks and plays music to them. The plants are all healthy and thriving.
He wishes he could say the same for himself. He dates women and often ends up in what he calls “love/anguish,” an unrequited passion for an indifferent girl. He writes “the worst poetry you ever read,” which he sends
to women who don’t want to read it. “I get so confused I start to freak out sometimes. I feel very alone in a crowd. I want someone to say it’s OK. Except it can’t come from someone. It has to come from me. I have to say, ‘You’re OK, Henry.’ ”
And he remembers what Stella Adier told his class at Yale: “There is a little devil inside you who wants to destroy you.” The thing inside, says Winkler, is self-doubt. The battle goes on.