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Henry Winkler Recalls Robin Williams' 'Happy Days' Debut

The actor behind Fonzie talks with THR about keeping a straight face during Williams' first major TV role

Happy Days Williams Winkler - H 2014
Courtesy of Everett Collection
"Happy Days'" Penny Marshall, left, Robin Williams and Henry Winkler

Henry Winker knew he had a front-row seat for something special when Robin Williams was cast as the bizarre alien on ABC's Happy Days.

Winkler, who starred for 11 seasons as Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli on the Garry Marshall comedy, recalled Williams' first day on the set. Williams was found dead Monday of an apparent suicide. He was 63.

"Here I am playing this man of very few words and I'm watching brilliance explode like fireworks every 10 or 15 seconds," Winkler told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday afternoon.

Happy Days helped to launch Williams' TV career after he guest-starred on a season-five episode of the comedy as Mork, an alien from the planet Ork. The character proved so popular that it led to a spinoff, Mork & Mindy, which aired from 1978 to 1982 on ABC.

"They couldn't find anybody to play this character that Garry's son suggested," Winkler recalled, noting Happy Days rehearsals typically began Monday mornings but the role was not cast until Wednesday. "This young man comes in and we started rehearsing and I quickly realized I had one job: to keep a straight face.

"What ever you said, he inhaled out of the air and then threw it back at you," he continued. "There was not one time it came out the same. There was not one time it was not truly, endlessly and fervently funny. You saw it and your mouth dropped. You couldn't believe it. I've worked with a lot of people and there is and was no one quite like him."

Winkler also recalled how the script process varied between Happy Days and Mork & Mindy, with the latter typically 15 pages shorter and routinely featuring a note that often read: "Robin will do something here." "After a while, I don't think they even bothered writing comic pieces for him because he was uncontainable in this universal way," he said. "He was touched. He was given something."

While Winkler did not keep in touch with Williams in the years that followed — he was hard-pressed to recall their last exchange — the actor described Williams as an "incredible and truly gifted comedian" who was "deeply emotional" with his drama roles.

Winkler later recalled days on the Happy Days set, which was close to the Mork & Mindy soundstage where Williams and co-star Jonathan Winters would frequently walk to lunch and start improvising on the street. "These two men together, crowds would come. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but it was always better than anything you've ever done," he said.

See how Hollywood is mourning Williams here.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit