Happy days are here again . . . especially for Henry Winkler. The actor, best-known for his portrayal of leather-clad, motorcycle-riding, high-school dropout auto mechanic Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli on the hit series Happy Days, is coming to Pittsburgh this weekend. He’ll appear at the Steel City Con at the Monroeville Convention Center.
His jet black hair has turned a soft gray, the angles of his face have softened, but time has been good to Winkler. He still looks great (at least in his publicity photos) and his New Yawk-tinged voice, even all these thousands of miles away, is unmistakable.
We caught up with the 66-year-old actor–who began his career in kindergarten playing a tube of toothpaste in a play about hygiene–in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife Stacey, three children (Jed, Zoë and Max) and two dogs, Charlotte and Linus.
If you could meet anyone famous, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you ask them?
That’s such a good question. Let’s see . . . alive it would be Barack Obama. I’d ask, ‘What I can I do to get you elected?’ At this moment, there is nothing more important. The two presidents of the US, Cheney and Bush, are really good politicians, but just not for this country. Nine people have benefited from them while millions have been screwed to the wall. The question now becomes: Will our country be good and smart enough to overcome our inbred prejudices and elect him?
What about the dead person?
Spencer Tracy. I would want to know the secret of acting. All my life, I have watched his work very carefully, and he acts with absolutely no effort and not a false beat in his body. Tracy had it. Jack Nicholson has it. Anthony Hopkins has it. They connected who they are playing with who they are as human beings and I am awed by that humanity. There are no airs. It is pure art.
Liza Minnelli bitches that she always will be known as ‘Liza Minnelli, the daughter of Judy Garland . . .’
[Interrupting]That’s something I can relate to because of The Fonz. The Fonz introduced me to the world. No matter what I accomplish, he is mentioned. But I am very honored to have that moniker. I am not being invited to Pops because I am a good guy; part of the reason is from playing that character, and that’s fine and dandy with me. I have no resentment, just gratitude. Look at what I have been able to do with my career because of him! The Fonz was everybody I wasn’t. He was everybody I wanted to be.
You mean a greasy-haired, leather-clad girl magnet?
When I was growing up, I had no sense of self. Being dyslexic meant being called stupid. I had no confidence, so I completely overcompensated with humor. When I played The Fonz, it was a perfect alter ego. He was everybody I wanted to be, everybody I wasn’t. There was nothing cool about me growing up. I became good looking when I was 28 when Happy Days started. Suddenly girls were knocking on my hotel door. Being chased was wonderful!
The character became so popular that ABC considered renaming the series Fonzie’s Happy Days. You said no. Why?
I couldn’t live with that. I was a part of a show that starred Ron Howard–who I consider my younger brother–and it would have been unbelievably disrespectful in the middle of the run to change the name for no reason other than to change the name. They even wanted to do a spin-off series for me. I told the producers that The Fonz lives and dies in the ensemble we already had. How could he survive without Mrs. C and Ritchie?
Is it true that motorcycle you rode on Happy Days was the same motorcycle Steve McQueen rode in The Great Escape?
Yes. The man who rented it to us just passed away. Growing up, my action hero was Steve McQueen I only met him once–we were walking by each other on a street in Beverly Hills, and we nodded at each other. To this day I am angry with myself that I did not shake his hand.
Fonzie’s image appeared on everything – a friend reminded me that he still has Fonzie bed sheets! Was there any product you would not allow your image to be on?
I said no to girl’s underwear. Men’s boxers were OK; I just thought girls’ went over the line.
You earned a bachelor’s degree from Emerson College in 1967 and a master’s of fine arts from Yale University in 1970. How did you do that with dyslexia?
If you want something badly enough, you do something; you learn to navigate the learning channel. I was told I was stupid, lazy and not living up to my potential most of my life. When you’re younger and you’re told that, you believe it. It’s part of your self-image. Every child has greatness, and it’s his job to figure out how to tap into that. It does not matter how a child learns. Just because we learn differently, that does not mean that we are not incredibly smart human beings. That’s something I need every child to understand.
All these years later, are you still affected by dyslexia?
Every minute of my life. I cannot do math. I cannot pronounce certain words. It’s tough to read. If it’s dark and I am not looking for certain landmarks, I will pass by my house.
So how do you learn a script?
I work at it. It takes extra time. Dyslexia is something you never get over but learn to integrate it into your life. I have a tremendous amount of courage to live life to its fullest. The step between having the courage and not having it is as thin as a thread on a button, and most of the time I do not have a problem. I am so grateful to be alive. I get up early, feed the dogs, clean up their poop and play the computer game Zuma. I don’t have good hand-to-eye coordination, but I have great tenacity. It took me a year, but yesterday I finally beat the computer.
You were one of last people to talk with John Ritter; you were working with him on the set of his sitcom, 8 Simple Rules… for Dating My Teenage Daughter when, in 2002, he collapsed and died. Recollections?
In 2000, we did a Neil Simon play, The Dining Room, together on Broadway and every day John would tell the same joke. Every day. The same joke. After a while, you think it would be, “OK, enough already.” But every day the same joke was extremely funny. He was limitless in what he could do. I miss him every day.
What TV shows do you watch?
24, Prison Break, The Closer and So You Think You Can Dance.
Is there any benefit being born the day before Halloween?
No. Well, maybe. Growing up, my birthday cakes would be black and orange.