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Henry Winkler Still Cool At 70

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Henry Winkler (left) stands along side his bronze likeness in Milwaukee with David Fantle (right).
Image provided by Reel to Real.
As The Legendary Greaser Milwaukee Turns 70 On Oct. 30, The Iconic TV Star Says His Role Of “Fonzie” Gave Him A Great Career Despite Challenges Of Typecasting

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine

Oct. 19, 2015 — Talk about second acts: Long after the popular TV series Happy Days jumped the shark and ended its 10-season run on ABC in 1984, the iconic star of the show, Henry Winkler, wrestled with the demons that come with typecasting. Those demons have long been exorcised as Winkler has forged a new career as a popular children’s author with his “Hank Zipzer” book series, character actor roles in movies (The Waterboy, the befuddled lawyer “Barry Zuckerkorn” in Arrested Development) and live pantomime – yes, pantomime – performances in England.

His second act also includes going on the speaking circuit recounting the educational challenges he faced growing up with less than supportive German parents who discounted the possibility that he had a learning disability (years later diagnosed as dyslexia) in favor of him just being “stupid.” It’s a resentment Winkler still harbors and carries over in talks in which he implores his audiences to be less judgmental and celebrate the “greatness” in each child.

Winkler has also been a steady ship in a turbulent Hollywood where fame is fleeting and marriages disposable. He and his wife Stacey have been together for 37 years and have three grown children.

Winkler’s portrayal of Fonzie, the street tough with the heart of gold was immortalized into the “Bronze Fonz” statue in Milwaukee, the setting for Happy Days in 2008. And his signature leather biker jacket rests in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Winkler’s third act is a new NBC reality show called Better Late than Never that stars William Shatner and a reboot of a series he executive produced, MacGyver. The Fonz character may be a diminishing spec in his rear view mirror, but it will forever define him.

In 1981, when his coolness factor was being ceded to younger, hipper stars, we interviewed Winkler, who was still portraying the Fonz, but trying desperately to shed the image by appearing in movies during his hiatus from the show. Winkler, then as now, has always been approachable, warm and fan-friendly. But the influence of his alter-ego cannot be understated. When the Fonz took out a library card in one episode, hundreds of thousands of young people followed suit.

The sun was close to setting on Happy Days and Winkler’s Fonzie when we met with him at his Paramount office in 1981 to talk about his ride to stardom, some less-than-successful films in which he had recently starred and what was next for a celebrity who must fight the casting directors who only see him in that leather jacket and perfectly coiffed hair.

It was funny then (although not entirely surprising) that Winkler, seated at his desk and sans his Fonz character, looked more like a nerdy staff accountant for H&R Block.

Thanks to Henry Winkler, the word “nerd” is now part of the American vernacular. Although, lately the term has gone the way of “groovy” and “far-out,” it was still used as a flip insult by his always cool Fonzie character on ABC’s Happy Days.

“A nerd is not necessarily a square,” he told us, “because there are some very lovely squares. I think the word has two parts. First, it is someone who doesn’t take responsibility for his or her life. And second, it is someone who doesn’t understand that we’re all the same and we’re all in this together. People who think they are superior are nerds and they should literally be thrown into a fire.”

If there is any star in Hollywood who can tell you what it’s like to be a pop-culture phenomenon, it’s Winkler, who played the leather-jacketed tough for nine years on the show. During the mid ‘70s, America was literally “Fonzie Crazy” and Winkler’s incredible ride lasted for much of that decade. Even despite the waning of his “hotness” factor, Winkler retained his stance as the cool guy with the big heart on Happy Days.

“The greatest thing about it is that I really enjoy being a celebrity. I can’t even begin to tell you about all the great things. Earning a living. Being able to live out a dream. Meeting people that I’ve never met before but had seen all my life. Having dinner with James Stewart. The only bad thing has been the occasional invasion of privacy, like people jumping over my fence and ringing the doorbell at midnight,” he said. “Another bad aspect is that you can’t make too many mistakes in our business since it’s all based on the dollar. So you can’t experiment a lot like you can in Europe. You’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done.”

For a while it seemed like Winkler would be terminally typecast as a Fonzie-like character. However, he had starred in some movies; he played a Vietnam vet in Heroes and a pro wrestler in The One and Only. Both proved that Winkler could shed his leather jacket, but he had yet to establish himself as a box-office draw or a critic’s favorite. Indeed, he went ballistic upon mention of the word “critic.”

“Well, critics, they’re really interesting aren’t they? There was a guy in Texas who wrote about The One and Only. He said: ‘After a half hour in the theater, I didn’t know whether I wanted to put a bullet through Winkler’s head or run out of the theater.’ So I called him at three in the morning and said, ‘Sir, you asshole, you’re reviewing celluloid. You’re reviewing entertainment. Why are your writing ‘put a bullet through my head?’ But you learn to live with such things. You get thick-skinned,” Winkler said.

After struggling as a stage actor in New York, Winkler relocated to Hollywood in 1973. He gave himself one month to find a job. Within two weeks he landed a memorable guest spot on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. By the end of the month he was offered the role in Happy Days.

“I threw caution to the wind and accepted the part,” he said. It turned out to be a wise career move, for nine years later the show was still pulling in respectable Nielsen ratings. Winkler takes 90 percent of the credit for developing the Fonzie role.

“It comes out of your own imagination,” he said. “What if I was actually in love with a motorcycle? Personally, I like four rubber wheels surrounded by steel. But I like to think that Fonzie has some of the same qualities that I have. He cares for his friends. He stands up for what he believes in. You see, everything I based upon is in all of us. He has the heart with the tough-guy façade.”

Winkler does indeed practice what he preaches and did not hesitate to criticize the medium that has made him a millionaire many times over.

“I think television in general needs to be more real,” he explained. “Now I don’t mean that it should not entertain or take you away from the stuff that is making you crazy in real life. But children watch television and they want to emulate certain characters. Then they look at real life and try to see where the two gel and, of course, they don’t. I also think that television is disrespectful to children. There are 62 million children in American and television talks down to every one of them.”

Winkler strongly felt that television viewing should be selected and limited by children’s parents. His own (at the time) 10-year-old son was only allowed to watch one hour a day with absolutely no TV viewing before school in the morning.

“Watching Happy Days is, of course, mandatory,” he laughed.

Then as now, we think that deserves two thumbs up and a big “ayeeeeee!”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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