On the whole, newspaper writers are trained to be calm, cool, and, most of all, objective. Personal feelings are pushed aside, professional detachment sets in, and cold, hard facts are the order of the day.
But then one morning your phone rings, and Henry Winkler is on the line from his home in Los Angeles. You hear that familiar voice and all at once, years of experience goes out the window because it’s the Fonz, for cryin’ out loud, and he's actually calling you. Without warning, you’re suddenly nine-years-old again and scrambling to speak coherently, let alone conduct a competent interview.
Luckily, Winkler’s casual grace and charm can put pretty much anyone at ease, and within moments you feel as if you’re conversing with an old friend.
And when he talks about coming to Vancouver for Fan Expo Vancouver today (November 10), tomorrow, and Sunday, Winkler very obviously relishes the opportunity to meet his fans.
“I really, really enjoy the interchange,” the 72-year-old Winkler says happily, “it’s where you get to meet the people who watch you, and you get a chance to say ‘Thanks you so much’ for giving your time to us. And what’s really amazing is that everyone who comes up has a different memory—there’s a whole generation of Happy Days fans, plus Scream, Waterboy, and Arrested Development . They talk to me about Here Comes the Boom, and they talk to me about Night Shift.”
A tireless worker, Winkler has been a Hollywood staple for close to fifty years. Since his first feature, 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush (“I made $1200 for 12 months work” he laughs, recounting how he replaced Richard Gere, who was let go after feuding with co-star Sylvester Stallone), he’s racked up scores of credits in TV, film, and theatre roles. A true renaissance man, he’s also written, directed, and produced.
But of course, it was the role of Arthur Fonzarelli—the Fonz—on the TV show Happy Days which truly made Winkler a household name and put the actor in the middle of a whirlwind during the height of Fonziemania in the mid-1970s.
“I was mobbed everywhere I went,” he recalls. ”I knew that it was a big deal, but I couldn’t let it in because I realized that I wasn’t any smarter, or any taller, just because I was on television. It was a little scary, but it was also incredible because I was having a great time doing this character, and I was earning a living where I could send my children to school and clothe them and put food on the table.”
Being a huge star also had other perks, as with the time John Lennon showed up unannounced on the Happy Days set with his young son, Julian.
“John was very shy, very quiet,” Winkler recalls. “I started to talk to him about his music, because nothing else was penetrating at all, and I finally started talking about his song "Mother", which is basically a primal scream, and he opened like a flower. It was an incredible, incredible moment for me.”
As it turns out, there’s even more to the story.
“Cut to ten years later,” Winkler continues, “and I’m in my office on the Paramount lot, and there’s a knock on the door. I open it and the man says, 'I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Julian…'” (It should be noted at this point that, among his other many talents, Winkler does a pretty solid Liverpudlian accent.)
“He now has a hit record, and he was there at Paramount doing his song on Solid Gold and he came to say hi! And I said, 'Julian, I think I would remember you.' What a wonderful circle, you know?”
Of course, when you have Winkler on the phone, you can’t not ask about the famous ‘jump the shark’ episode of Happy Days, so the subject is gingerly broached, Winkler chuckles, and it leads to another great story.
“Well, my father told me to tell [Happy Days producer] Garry Marshall that I water ski. And I kept saying, 'Dad, what are you talking about?'”
At this point, Winkler launches into his father’s heavy German accent: “'Tell them that it’s important for them to know that you water ski.'” Then, continuing on in his own voice he recalls, “Finally I went in and told them that my father wants you to know that I can water ski. And the next thing you know, I’m water skiing.”
With the idiom ‘jump the shark’ now a part of the popular lexicon, it begs the question, did it ever occur to anyone at the time that perhaps they’d taken things a bit too far?
Winkler just laughs. “Hey, listen, how far can you go when the Fonz walks up to an apartment building and hits it with his fist and all the lights come on? Besides, we were an honest-to-God hit for many years after ‘jump the shark’, so it never really meant anything.”
Despite nearly five decades in show business, Winkler is not slowing down, and—if anything—actually seems to be ramping up his efforts. He’s just finished filming a new show, Barry, with Bill Hader, completed a second season of Better Late than Never (a travelogue with Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman, William Shatner, and Jeff Dye), and he’s just filmed three new episodes of Arrested Development.
Winkler’s life is happily busy, to be sure, but he also has never forgotten about the challenges he faced as a child. Despite all the fame and adulation, one thing that was not obvious to the public during the years of Fonziemania was Winkler’s dyslexia, and the self-doubt which followed him to superstardom.
“When I was growing up, no one knew about learning challenges, they just told me I was stupid. Or lazy. Or not living up to my potential. Or that I should know that material at my age. You feel bad, and that core feeling stays with you into adulthood, and it takes a lot of work to finally realize, hey, I’m not stupid, it doesn’t matter if I‘m having trouble reading, or I can’t spell, or if math is hard, I still have good thoughts and I’m doing a responsible job here. But I’ll tell you, those bad feelings follow you like a bad penny.”
As a result, Winkler’s most personal professional accomplishment is being the author (along with Lin Oliver) of 34 children’s books about Hank Zipzer, a young boy learning to manage his learning challenge. It’s a subject Winkler knows well, and it allows him to impart some hopefulness to children who have academic difficulties of their own.
“I took geometry, the same course, eight times, I finally passed it with the lowest grade you can get, a D. And from that date in 1963 until today, not one human being has ever said the word ‘hypoteneuse’ to me! All of that shame and grounding and yelling because I wasn’t doing well was for nothing. You never lose your learning challenge, you just learn to negotiate it. And I tell every child I meet, whether they want to hear it or not, ‘You’re not defined by school, you’re a much more important, bigger, human being, than grades.’”
“I had a real life teacher, Mr. Rock, and Mr, Rock was very positive to me, he was the only one. He told me, 'Winkler, you’ll be okay.' That made all the difference to me, and I’m happy to pass it along to Hank Zipzer.”
After a thoughtful pause, Winkler continues, clearly amazed at his own luck.
“I am so grateful I can’t tell you. What a distance from Fonzie to the 34 novels I’ve written—I mean, the journey just seems impossible for me to wrap my head around, and I’m in it!”
Fan Expo Vancouver takes place at the Vancouver Convention Centre from Friday to Sunday (November 10 to 12).