Fonzie Lives: Henry Winkler on “Happy Days,” “Arrested Development,” and the “Bronze Fonz”

The Happy Days and Arrested Development star comes to town for the Wizard World St. Louis convention, March 22-24 at America’s Center.



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A comic-book convention is not the sort of gathering where you might expect to find Henry “The Fonz” Winkler signing autographs, but this weekend he touches down in the heartland for Wizard World St. Louis Comic Con. Winkler has never played a wizard or a vampire, but, surrounded by actors who specialize in fantasy roles, he manages to attract a demographic of his own – fans of Happy Days, Arrested Development, the Royal Pains and his popular series of Hank Zipzer books, the misadventures of a boy who has dyslexia, just like Winkler does. 
What did the Fonz put in his hair?
That was all hair spray. It took about 20 minutes to do my hair. I would do it on Friday afternoon and we would shoot at night. I would start getting into character at about noon and we shot in front of a live audience at 7 p.m.
At one point plenty of kids owned a Fonzie doll. What’s it like to have a doll made of your character?
They still make plenty of collectibles, too. The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s a great compliment. The only thing that I ever said that I couldn’t allow on the market was little girls’ underwear with the Fonz on it.
That was suggested?
Yes. I had the opportunity to deny stuff that I couldn’t abide.
Do you still have any of the leather jackets?
The original was stolen from the costume department. They had made five of them. One they ripped out the lining to do the water skiing scene in the “Jump the Shark” episode. One is in the Smithsonian. I have one, and I don’t know what happened to the other.
Did anyone ever think you could smack a jukebox and get it to start playing or snap your fingers and make things happen like the Fonz could in Happy Days?
No. Nobody actually thought I could do that.
Why was nostalgia for the ‘50s so huge in the ‘70s?
That, I couldn’t say. I know that Garry Marshall did it on purpose so you could tell moral stories without feeling like you were being hit on the head, because it was set in another time.
Did you have any idea Ron Howard’s career would become so big, as a director?
I knew from the moment I met him that whatever this young man wanted to do he would be great at. He is very personally powerful.
And you’re the godfather to his actress-daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard.
He has four kids, and we are godparents to the oldest, who is an actress and a director herself.
How did you deal with reading and memorizing scripts for Happy Days, with dyslexia?
It just took me longer than everybody else.
After Happy Days and The Lords of Flatbush, were you typecast as a greaser?
Yes, I was, and sometimes even to this day. It’s my job to fight through that.
How do you feel about being involved in the infamous “Jump the Shark” episode of Happy Days that spawned the phrase?
When we were doing that, we didn’t think one thing or the other. It never dawned on me that it would turn into a catch phrase. I met the man who created the catch phrase and did his radio show and we had a wonderfully stimulating show. I never imagined that it would become what it did. We were number one for the next four or five years anyway so no one else was thinking that except for that one young man at Michigan University. We were actually number one for nine-and-a-half years. What dethroned us was The A-Team.
There is a Fonzie statue in Milwaukee, the “Bronze Fonz,” to commemorate the show being set there.
People all over the world send me photos of that statue that they have dressed up for various holidays. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out when I went to unveil it. The entire cast was there for that.
On Arrested Development, your character, a clueless lawyer named Barry Zuckerkorn, was replaced for a season when you left to do a movie. The replacement lawyer, “Bob Loblaw,” was played by Scott Baio. That was just too funny.
I went off to do a movie and Scott came in and did a great job. In the new series coming out on Netflix, one of the scenes I do is with Scott. The creator of Arrested is the second genius that I’ve worked with in my life. Mitch Hurwitz is just brilliant. The first is Garry Marshall. The third would be Adam Sandler.
Yes! You’ve been in a bunch of Adam Sandler movies.
I called him up to thank him for being in the “Chanukah Song” and our relationship started there.
People are so excited about the return of Arrested Development.
That will be in the spring on Netflix. I think there are 10-12 episodes. I am bound by the threat of death not to discuss anything about Barry. Let’s just say that Barry still knows nothing about the law. (Laughs)
You’ve co-authored a popular series of children’s books about Hank Zipzer, a boy with dyslexia, which is something you’ve suffered from.
There are now 23 novels. They’re comedies about my life as a learning-challenged kid. We’ve sold about four million of them so far, and it’s going to be a television show in the U.K. Last year I was given the Order of the British Empire for the work I do over there for the students.
Does anyone call you “Hank”?
My very best friend Frank calls me Hank – but he’s the only human being in the world.
Do people think you’re related to movie producer Irwin Winkler?
Yes! We used to get his mail.
I loved when you asked a roomful of prostitutes in the movie Night Shift if they could use a dental plan. This may sound ridiculous, but that totally resonates amongst the poor, disenfranchised today, in a world of overpriced health care.
I love that movie. That was Ron’s [Howard’s] first major-studio movie, and he came to me and said you can play either role, so and I said I’ve played the Fonz, so I’m gonna play Richie now – and one of the great things about SAG [the Screen Actors’ Guild] is the health plan.
A lot of people love the movie and the book Holes, and your character, wacky inventor Stanley Yelnats.
A lot of people bring the book for me to sign. That was also a wondeful cast. Shia LaBeouf, in the same way that I knew about Ron, I knew when I met him he was a very special fellow. He’s really talented.
At conventions you’re surrounded by sci-fi and fantasy types. I’m trying to think of what connection you could possibly have to those worlds, and all I can think of is your appearance on “Mork from Ork.”
That’s true, but nobody ever mentions that.
What’s it like for you at these pop-culture conventions, like the one you’ll be at in St. Louis this weekend?
What is really incredible is that I get to meet the people who enjoy all these different things. Kids come for a Hank Zipzer book, adults come for the Fonz, young adults come for The Waterboy and Here Comes the Boom. It’s amazing; I get to meet all these people. There’s no way to relate how incredible the people are that wait to say hello. I never sit behind the table. I stand in front of the table so I’m right there with them. I consider the experience a great compliment to me. | Byron Kerman

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