“I was never cool,” admits the actor Henry Winkler, who is best known for playing the coolest character in the history of television — The Fonz” on ABC’s Happy Days from 1974-1984 — as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I acted who I wanted to be, never who I was. Now, at 72, I know the absolute definition of cool, and it is being authentically you.”
Forty-four years, five Emmy nominations and a rollercoaster of a career since first shooting to stardom as The Fonz, Winkler is now playing another role that is bringing him some of the best reviews of his career, and might well bring him his long-elusive Emmy: Gene Cousineau, a hard-ass acting teacher, on Bill Hader’s hilarious new HBO dramedy Barry. He is not only thrilled to be back on TV as a series regular, but proud to be a series regular on a show that he likens to “cashmere” — fine, smooth and polished in every way.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 23:27], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and David Rooney, THR‘s chief theater critic, about the two-part shows that are the talk of Broadway, the return of Glenda Jackson and how the Tonys may acknowledge “The Boss.”
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“I always felt invisible,” Winkler says when asked about his childhood. He suffered from debilitating dyslexia which marred his performance in school, his relationship with his Holocaust-survivor parents and his self-esteem even after he became world-famous, since his affliction wasn’t even diagnosed until he was 31. “It embarrassed me, it slowed me down,” he says. Nevertheless, despite his shaken confidence and reading struggles, he wound up gaining acceptance to Emerson College and then the Yale School of Drama, pursuing his childhood dream of being an actor, and getting to be people other than himself.
After spending his first few years out of school as a professional actor with the prestigious Yale Repertory Theatre, Winkler headed to New York to make his first movie, 1973’s The Lords of Flatbush, and a lot of commercials (“I got really good at it”). He then flew to Hollywood, intending to stay for only one month unless something clicked. “In the first week,” he chuckles in disbelief, “I got four lines on Mary Tyler Moore, which was the No. 1 sitcom at the time. And then two weeks in, I got to audition for Garry Marshall.” Marshall was casting Happy Days, a nostalgic 1970s show about the 1950s, and needed to fill the role of The Fonz, which at the time called for only six lines. On Winkler’s 27th birthday, he booked the part, and so resonated with audiences that he was made a series regular, quickly becoming synonymous with the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding, thumbs-up deploying king of cool.
“I had a dream,” Winkler reflects. “I lived my dream for 10 years.” But when Happy Days‘ run came to an end, the actor found that continuing to live his dream was harder than ever. “There were eight years in there when I couldn’t get hired,” he says. “For a lot of years, I did not have an audition for a pilot because [people would say], ‘We love him, but he was The Fonz.'” During those leaner years, Winkler ventured into directing and producing — with considerable success — before re-emerging as a character actor game to do anything, particularly for a laugh. On the big screen he showed up in 1996’s Scream and 1998’s The Waterboy, the latter marking the first of many collaborations with Adam Sandler. On the small screen, Winkler wound up a supporting player on some of the most highly regarded comedy series of the 21st century, including Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation.
Now, as Cousineau on Barry, Winkler — a father of three and grandfather of four — has added another title to that list, and created another character that might well become iconic. “I only concentrate on making sure that I walk right up to the line of absurdity, and try not to step over it,” he chuckles. The opportunity is extra special to him for several reasons. For one, his own son, helmer Max Winkler (Flower), helped him to land it by directing his audition video. For another, he has colored the character by drawing upon memories of a variety of sadistic acting teachers he himself studied under, such as Stella Adler, as well as on others he never worked with, but whose reputations precede them, such as Lee Strasberg. And, for yet another, Winkler remains genuinely excited, even after all these years, to still be in the game and still working alongside top people in the game (he names Hader and Alec Berg, as well as up-and-coming co-stars Sarah Goldberg and Kirby Howell-Baptiste).
The role of The Fonz will be with him always — and he’s not unhappy about that. “I was watching Happy Days with my 6-year-old grandson,” Winkler shares, breaking into laughter. “We’re sitting on the couch. He’s looking at the screen. He looks at me. He’s looking at the screen. He looks at me. Then he says, ‘Papa, your hair is different.’ Could it be that it’s almost completely white? ‘You’re very, very observant. Mind your own business!'” At a time when seemingly every other classic TV show is being rebooted, how would Winkler feel if someone tried to do that with Happy Days? “I would feel wonderful,” he says. “I do not think it is sacrilegious.” These days, what he feels most of all is immense gratitude. “Look at the life I’ve got,” he marvels. “I take my pick and my ax to work every day and I mine the system, because I do not want to be a flash in the pan, nor do I want to stop until I’m ready. And I am loving my life.”