Interview with Henry Winkler

I’ve had the very good fortune to meet many of the stars I’ve admired in my various jobs in the movie business. Sean Connery. Charlton Heston. Of course the late, great Roy Scheider. But it wasn’t until I met Henry Winkler that I realized a person’s on-screen persona can be so similar to the one he lives off-screen. Most celebrities are usually courteous when greeted by a fan (I can name a couple who aren’t but that would be indiscreet). However sometimes the courtesy is forced. In 1989 I attended an event featuring Mickey Mantle. Hoping to get a baseball autographed by the Yankee great, I stood in line for almost 2 hours. When I got to his table, an assistant took my ball from me, passed it down to Mantle, who signed it and passed it to another assistant, who handed it back to me. As I took my ball I said, “Thank you, Mr. Mantle.” Mantle gave me a quick glance and went back to signing the next item. “Did you see that,” another person in the line said to me, “Mick looked at you!” It was at a similar promotional event that I met Henry Winkler. Rather then sit behind a table and surround himself with assistants, Mr. Winkler stood and greeted each fan personally, not only shaking their hand or giving them a hug, but exchanging a quick story or two. And after more then three decades of stardom, there are plenty of stories to share. From the iconic Arthur Fonzarelli on “Happy Days” to a successful career as producer and director, Henry Winkler has seemingly done it all. And with style.


Mr. Winkler graciously answered some questions before catching a plane.

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Michael Smith: You’re a graduate of the Yale Drama School, Class of 1970. Did you have any classmates that went on to fame? Also, I see your 40th Reunion Celebration is coming in June…will you be attending?

Henry Winkler: Twenty-five actors started with me at Yale. Eleven finished the program. Three were asked into the company. James Naughton, who went on to win Tony Awards on Broadway (for “City of Angels” and “Chicago.” TV fans may also recognize him from the “Planet of the Apes” television series), Jill Eikenberry of “LA Law” fame, and me.

I almost never go to reunions. I’m not exactly sure why, but I have an aversion to them. I think I noticed that I break out in a rash thinking about them.


MS: You were very close friends with John Ritter, and you both got an early break by appearing on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” How did you two meet?

HW: We met at the 25th anniversary of the ABC network. There was a big party. John’s table was directly next to mine. Our chairs were back to back. I leaned over and whispered to him that I thought the promo for his new show “Three’s Company” was very funny and that his physical comedy in it was fantastic. That started a long and loving friendship.

MS: In 1974 you appeared alongside Perry King and Sylvester Stallone in “The Lords of Flatbush.” Could you tell by working with them that they would both go on to pretty successful careers?

HW: Sly Stallone hid in this big, over the top persona of a street-tough. But underneath was an articulate, dedicated, very funny, successful writer.

When we were doing the movie, I had the opportunity to walk him home to his apartment. It was in a walk-up building with no elevator on Lexington Ave. He shared it with his wife, Sasha, and their bull mastiff. He painted the windows black so that he would not be disturbed by time while he wrote. A year later, he and his wife drove across country with their dog. The car broke down on Sunset Blvd. He called me and said he’s got a problem. I went and picked them up and took them to the apartment they were renting in Hollywood, north of Sunset Blvd.

MS: Stephen Verona recently released a book on the making of “Lords.” I was unaware that Richard Gere was the original choice to play Chico. That’s even more of an impressive cast. Was there a reason Perry King replaced him?

HW: I replaced him.

Interviewer’s mea culpa! Mr. Winkler’s character in the film is “Butchie.”

MS: Of course 1974 also brought about “Happy Days.” If memory serves me correctly, the character of Fonzie was very minor at the beginning of the series and wore a blue windbreaker. When was it suddenly ok to break out the leather?

HW: Garry Marshall made a deal with the powers that be at ABC that the Fonz would only wear leather when he was near his motorcycle or riding his motorcycle. Garry then called all of the script writers on our show and said, “Never write a scene for the Fonz without his motorcycle”.

MS: You went from ensemble player to second billing. Were there any hard feelings among your co-stars?

HW: No. The cast of “Happy Days,” no matter what their age, were completely professional. There was no attitude, not even for a moment for the ten years of the show’s run. We played charades together, played baseball together, traveled all over the world for the USO together and worked very hard together to make the show as funny as it could possibly be.

MS: Let’s talk about one of my favorite films, “Heroes.” I was a movie theatre usher when the film came out and even today, every time I hear Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” I think about the coming attraction. I’ve read that after “Happy Days” made you a star you were offered many different parts, from the role William Kaat would eventually play in “First Love” to Danny Zuko in “Grease.” What made you choose “Heroes?”

HW: A lot of the opportunities were very “Fonz” like, so I wanted not to be type cast.

Of course, hindsight makes us all brilliant. If I had to do it over again, the one decision I would have changed- I would have done “Grease”. I went home and had a Coca-Cola. John Travolta went home and bought a plane.

MS: You won back to back Golden Globe awards in 1977 and 1978 for your work on “Happy Days.” In 1978 you were also nominated as Best Motion Picture Actor for “Heroes.” So many television actors try features and fail miserably. Did the nomination give you a sense of validity?

HW: No. I don’t think so. I was very appreciative but I think validity is not defined by awards, but rather by longevity. The most difficult part of being an actor is remaining relevant.

MS: You did 255 episodes of “Happy Days.” Plus, the show spun off four more series and an animated show. You made appearances on “Laverne and Shirley,” “Mork and Mindy” and “Joanie Loves Chachi” plus voiced the Fonzie character on “The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang” cartoon. AND you pitched on the “Happy Days” softball team. When did you find time to sleep? 🙂

HW: I always believed in the phrase, “If you want something done, give it to a busy man.”
I so enjoy the fact that I get to do my work everyday, that sleep becomes irrelevant.

MS: Ron Howard left “Happy Days” to pursue his directing career but you stayed with the show the entire 10 years, even though you had a very successful movie career. Did you ever entertain the idea of leaving?

HW: No. I never thought of leaving. I thought, “If I sign my name to the paper, I’m going to honor my commitment.” Ron’s choice was completely different. He knew from a very early age, maybe 15, that directing was going to be his path. So after his commitment of 5 years was over, he left to pursue his passion. And luckily for us, he did, because he is truly one of the most successful directors in the world. And TRULY great at what he does.

With that question answered, it was time to head for his plane. There are many more questions to ask and, schedule permitting, perhaps Mr. Winkler will grant us some of his time again. Our sincere thanks to Mr. Winkler for participating in our interview series.

Click here to purchase Henry’s books and movies

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