After entering almost every scene as The Fonz to wild applause for 10 straight years on Happy Days, Henry Winkler could be forgiven for becoming a one trick pony. Married for over 40 years, one of the ‘nicest men’ in Hollywood has many more strings to his bow than his initial few lines.
“Well, remember this, I had six lines in that first episode. So I had no idea. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. All I knew was I hit my script. I went to graduate school, I’m from the east, I’m a trained actor and I’m looking at this and I can’t make it work and it’s just silly.”
And what were the six lines? “‘Hey, Richie. You leave the talking to the girls to me, alright?’ That’s one of them. I don’t remember the others.”
This was the beginning of a long professional relationship and friendship between Winkler and the cast of Happy Days. Winkler went on to appear in Night Shift which was directed by Ron Howard and became godfather to Bryce Dallas Howard, Howards actress daughter.
“I’m 27, Ron Howard’s 18. He came up, he put his arm around me, walked me to the back of the soundstage, and he said, ‘you know, they work really hard, so let’s not hit our script. They’re trying hard, these writers.’ I said, ‘Ron, I will never hit my script as long as I live again.’ ‘Okay.’ So that was my first meeting with Ron and now I’m going to speak at his dad’s funeral on Saturday.”
Winkler also keeps in regular contact with other Happy Days cast “I just had lunch with Marion [Ross, who played Marion Cunningham]. I talk to Don [Most, who played Ralph Malph] and Anson [Williams, who played Potsie Weber]. They’re wonderful – wonderful group.”
After finishing Happy Days in 1984 Winkler found success as both a producer and director before being cast as Principal Arthur Himbry in 90’s slasher movie Scream drawing Winkler back in to popular culture.
Then came Barry – Winkler plays Gene Cousineau, an eccentric acting teacher in Hollywood with a book called “Hit Your Mark And Say Your Lines”. Winkler reflects on what he thinks motivates Gene to run his acting class. “One is that he is adored. One is that he believes that he’s still relevant, because I personally, as Henry, truly believe the most important thing on the face of the earth is to be relevant, and I don’t mean being famous, I mean just being in the game. I mean just helping at a dog shelter – just doing.”
Certainly still relevant, Winkler was awarded with an honorary OBE for his services and work on dyslexia in the UK and in 2013 named by the National Literacy Trust as one of the UK’s top 10 literacy heroes for the children’s books Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever which is about a dyslexic boy. Winkler was diagnosed with dyslexia in his early 30s. And more recently winning an Emmy in 2018 and the Critics Choice Television Award in 2019 for the role of Gene in Barry.
With his wealth of experience and success, Winkler is not immune to nerves. “I’m 72 years old and I think, ‘I don’t think I remember how to do this. Oh my god, what are they going to say? Oh my god, I am scared out of my mind.’ And I can literally find 90 reasons to talk my way out of doing things. In 1979 I was asked to do Scrooge for ABC. I thought, ‘so many wonderful actors have done it before me. I have no right to do this. I will now say no.’ And then I thought to myself, ‘if I say no and give into that fear, I am full of it.’ I don’t know if I did a great job, but I know that I’m proud that I did the job.”
Not a believer of fear ever going away, Winkler has always persevered. “I’ll tell you what though, I understand now that the anticipatory fear is worse than the reality. So if I feel afraid, I feel afraid for less time and think, ‘no, shut the fuck up Henry and just get on with it and you’ll figure it out.’ And let me tell you, when they say youth is wasted on the young, it’s true. I wish I knew that then.”
While nervous, Winkler went ahead and auditioned for the role of Gene. “I said, ‘well, if Bobby de Niro is also on the list, I’m not coming.’ I was scared. I was reading with the wonderful casting director Sherry Thomas and out of the corner of my eye I’m seeing that I’m making Bill Hader laugh. He’s gotten out of his chair. I can’t believe it. And then it was over… I went home and then you wait.”
Winkler of course landed the part and is generous in sharing his admiration of his Barry colleague. “Bill [Hader] is a revelation. He wrote it, he produced it, he directed two episodes and he stars in it – all at the same time, effortlessly. There was no drama.”
And at 72 Winkler still has aspirations “One of the three things on my bucket list is to win a Tony.”
You can catch Henry Winkler as Gene on Barry Season 2 alongside Bill Hader on SOHO2 on Wednesdays at 8pm or catch up on NEON
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