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Henry Winkler has had a long and storied career, but it began with Garry Marshall calming his nerves when he auditioned against a who’s who of Hollywood names for what would become his breakout role, Fonzie on Happy Days.
To hear Winkler tell it, Marshall was more than just a prolific TV and film producer and director — he was a surrogate father who not only instilled in him a team-player philosophy but also taught him how to play softball.
Winkler, an actor, producer and children’s book author who stars next in HBO’s Barry and NBC’s Better Late Than Never, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how the late icon taught him how to embrace who he is, break free from the typecasting of Fonzie and yes, the real stories behind “jumping the shark” and that famous leather jacket.
What did Garry Marshall mean to you?
He left an unfillable hole in the fabric of entertainment because he did everything so effortlessly. He taught you. He directed you. He solved the problems for you. He was loyal. He was your friend. He was like my surrogate dad. He was there no matter what, no matter when for you. If you had a problem when we were doing the show [Happy Days], he had so many solutions — now you had the problem of which one to pick. It’s the totality of being loved by him and loving him.
He launched the careers of so many people, including you —
And he touched the lives of so many more. The last time I saw him a few months ago at his office, we had lunch. He had salad that seemed to be all over the desk and there was a line of writers outside waiting for him to talk about their script, advice, how to solve a character problem; he did that like we breathe.
What do you recall about Garry and the casting process for Happy Days?
I remember walking into the greenroom at Paramount and every actor I’d ever seen on television before was sitting there in the room and I was called in. Tom Miller, Eddie Milkis and Garry Marshall and the head of casting Millie Gussie and her assistant and a guy named Pasqual, who I was going to read with. I was petrified. Garry calmed you down and made you comfortable. Then I read six lines and left. I came back because now they wanted to see what I’d look like — other than a short Jewish person (laughs). They plucked my unibrow, combed my hair into a DA and put me in a white T-shirt and jeans. I went back and auditioned for Garry again. This time, I got a call on my birthday saying, “Would you like to play this character?” I had six lines in the beginning. You could call Garry — his door was always open. Metaphorically, his door for me was open for the last 44 years.
What kind of advice did he have for you when the show took off?
He was also very strict. The advice? I learned how to be a producer from him. That you took care of everyone with great respect. That no one was better than anybody else on that set. You didn’t talk about stardom or fan mail or what was happening in your life. You talked about how do you make the script funnier. No bad behavior was allowed. He said so many times [said in an impression of Garry’s voice], “Listen, everybody does important television — I do recess!” He did not waiver from what he knew. He got very stale doing television. He knew how to do that with his eyes closed and he wanted a bigger journey and wanted another revolution in his life and he started doing movies, which worked out pretty good too.
Everyone has shared so many great stories of their time with him. John Stamos wrote a great essay about how Garry was there for him when his mother passed away and gave him advice to get a catch phrase after he was cast in Full House.
Garry taught me how to play softball (laughs). I never was good at sports except for water skiing and horseback riding. And horseback riding is where Fonzie’s “Whoa!” and “Ayy” came from. Garry wanted so badly to be part of baseball and softball. He had all of his knees, his hips — he had extra hips so that he never had to stop playing his beloved game.
And at age 81, he was still playing and had a 6-1 record for his softball team!
Yes! We traveled all over the world playing as the Happy Days ball team. We played for the American troops in Germany, in Japan. We played in major ball fields all over the country, all because he wanted so badly to be part of a sports team. He had a basketball game at his house every Sunday and Ron [Howard] was a good basketball player.
You juggle producing — with an NBC show coming up — and acting. What kind of lessons did Garry teach you that you’ve embraced?
Garry taught me how to be true to myself. He taught me — and through the role of Fonzie — he taught me to listen to my instinct. That the work is the thing that matters, not the result. Those people who think that they are who other people are now saying they are? They are going to be shocked out of their socks when it all changes. There was a time when I needed [to not be seen as Fonzie], when I’d call Garry and go see him because people would say, “Wow, Henry, what an actor! We love him! But he’s The Fonz.” And I had to fight through that. That’s how I transitioned into the other jobs. I learned from him. He was also first one to let me be a director. My first directing assignment was the 13th episode of Joanie Loves Chachi. I was walking down the street and Tom, Eddie and Garry were talking that they couldn’t find a director for the episode. I said, “I’ll do it!” They said, “Good idea!” I was just joking with them and told them I was just being sassy. Garry said, “No, I think you’ll be good!”
Do you have a memory of him that really stands out from the rest?
My short German father said, “Tell them you water ski!” I said, “Dad, I don’t think I’m going to do that.” He said it so often to me that I told Garry at the Cubs game when we lost my father at the stadium. Everybody got on the bus but my father. Garry said, “It’ll be OK, we’ll find him, it’s fine! There’s a lot of people looking.” I said to him, “Garry, my father wants you to know I water ski.” I’ll be damned if I didn’t wind up water skiing and jumping the shark.
That became such a cultural moment that is still referenced today. What was your response when you read the script with the “jump the shark” moment?
Except we were No. 1 for years afterward, so it didn’t actually apply to us! I realized you cannot question lines. One of the very first shows we ever did, I was reading the script and had just come from New York and went to school to be an actor and didn’t like the line. I started to punch the script and Ron Howard put his arm around me and walked me back to the soundstage and said, “Those writers work really hard. You don’t want to hit your script.” I said, “Ron, I will never do that again as long as I live.” Garry had people who were 21 and 77 years old in the room.
There’s a legendary story about Garry pushing back against an ABC mandate that Fonzie couldn’t wear a leather jacket because it made him look like a hood. What do you recall about that exchange? Why did he fight so hard for the jacket?
I had to wear a cloth jacket in the beginning. Garry went to ABC and said, “Henry and the Fonz could be hurt if he’s riding a motorcycle and tips over if he’s not wearing leather.” ABC at the time, Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, said, “OK, you can only have him in leather — because we think he’ll be associated with crime — when he’s in a scene with his bike.” Garry drove from ABC in Century City to Paramount and walked into the writers’ room and said, “Never write a scene without his bike again!” And I started wearing leather. He just thought it was right. I said to Garry, “It’s really difficult to be cool in a golf jacket where the collar doesn’t stay up!”
What kind of a legacy do you think he leaves behind?
Emotionally and creatively, it was a joy to be in his presence. He was open and would talk to you about his children, who grew up on the set of Happy Days. He would talk to you about whatever the problem was. He was just a humanist. Everything was for his family. And then there were people he let in. Like the alpha wolf, he let you into the pack and it was a rare pack to be in. There were so many different people in the pack — Mark Rothman and Lowell Ganz, who wrote Happy Days in the early years and Lowell took over and ran the show. Mark’s father was a cab driver and Garry got in the cab and Mark’s father said, “My son and his friends wrote this script, take a look.” Garry said, “OK,” and hired them. And Lowell went on with [Happy Days story consultant] Babaloo Mandel to become gurus of Hollywood, California. But Garry’s legacy is almost unrivaled. He always told an emotional story. It was always the guy who was having a hard time or was misunderstood and rose to the top like cream.
You’re also a prolific children’s book author with your Hank Zipzer series adapted for TV on the BBC. Any plans to have a character named Garry anytime soon?
Not only do I have a character named Garry, but in the 17th novel of Hank Zipzer, Garry Marshall is the one who lets my hero — he is dyslexic [like Winkler] — who has always failed and had a hard time, into the school for performing arts and finally Hank meets his bliss.
Sounds like art imitating life there.
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