In a way, I’ve created a monster.
Henry Winkler is once again into his favorite thing: introspection. With “Fonzie,” the greaser-biker-mentor of the ABC 1950s high school nostalgia sitcom Happy Days, he has indeed created a monstrous figure. The Fonz has become TV’s super-character of the mid-’70s, cooler than Kojak, hotter than Kotter’s “sweathogs,” more explosive than dyn-o-mite and higher, ratings-wise, than even The Six Million Dollar Man.
So what if Winkler’s monkey wrench silhouette looms only 5’6½” high—he has cast a giant shadow on the land. And reaped the fallout of cultdom: rumors of his death; seven bodyguards to prevent it; wheeler-dealers cashing in on The Fonz’s name with posters, decals, T-shirts, a rock group, a hit single, a one-shot magazine…and this week the one recognition that has truly touched Henry: being up for an Emmy for TV’s comedy lead of the season (against Alan Alda, Jack Albertson and Hal Linden). “It would be a lie to say I am not thrilled to death just to be against the heavyweights,” Henry exults. “It’s like my entry into the community.”
“My career has gone so fast my brain hasn’t absorbed it all,” says Winkler, 30, referring to his possibly most erogenous zone. It was never his dream to wind up as a macho model for drag-strip cowboys or as the heartthrob of the training-bra set. “Fonzie is not me. Henry is me. The Fonz is my fantasy,” he continues edgily, “and I want people to know there is a Henry Winkler and who he is.”
Who Henry is is not a supercool high school dropout like Arthur Fonzarelli but an intense, inner-directed master of fine arts from the Yale School of Drama. It bugs him that his likeness in the Movieland Wax Museum most likely will be thumbs-upping the world in a leather jacket rather than wearing a jerkin and cradling poor Yorick’s skull. Anyone else might just take the gelt and run, but Winkler professes to be appalled by all the hucksterism: “More money than I ever dreamed of in my life is being shoved into my face. If I took it, the next two generations of my family wouldn’t have to worry, but it’s not clean money. I’ll do what I am going to do by working. I trained nine years to be an actor.” To be sure, Paramount is suing to prevent others from horning in on the traffic in Fonzie T-shirts, but Winkler has put his boot down on other proposed merchandising ventures. Henry asks poignantly: “Does Bobby DeNiro sell dolls?”
That sums up Winkler’s dilemma. Headlining in a TV caricature role has sped other performers to a premature career climax and early triviadom. Edd (Kookie of 77 Sunset Strip) Byrnes died professionally with his comb in hand. Leonard Nimoy peaked, along with his ears, in Star Trek. Movie audiences laughed out loud when Jean Stapleton, a Broadway actress before she became “the dingbat” of All in the Family, essayed a straight role in Klute. Is Winkler typecast in cement, permanently consigned to dinner-theater performances of Grease or Bye Bye Birdie? And can an actor continue to play a greaser when he requires a little touching up with Grecian Formula 16? Those are not quite the existential questions Henry hopes to face. Without saying so, he’d like to be another DeNiro or Dustin Hoffman.
“My Jewishness helps me as an actor,” Winkler finds. “It is a very emotional religion. For me, Italians and Jews have the same emotional basis.” Henry’s parents, who fled Hitler’s Germany, raised him to serve not knuckle sandwiches (à la Fonz) but the State Department. But even as Winkler matriculated (painfully) in Manhattan and Swiss private schools, he was deciding against careers in diplomacy and his dad’s international lumber business. “I lived an insular life in New York,” he reflects. “I went to temple dances and wore a blue blazer. If I had met The Fonz then, I would have pretended I was blind, so he would leave me alone.”
While at Yale, Winkler went into rep, appearing in some 60 plays in the next five years, and augmented his $175-a-week salary with TV ads that ranged from Chef Boyardee frozen pizza to Close-Up toothpaste. Henry greased his hair for the first time ever for his movie debut as a dude in The Lords of Flatbush. Thereafter, he moved to Hollywood, was a circuit rider on the various MTM series and within two months had beat out a batch of six-footers for the Happy Days role. “He was unassuming and polite, with impeccable manners and openly nervous,” reports executive producer Tom Miller. “But he was very articulate, with an extraordinary personality. He turned his back on us for five seconds, and when he turned around again, suddenly he was 10 feet tall.”
It was Winkler who also turned the series around from 48th place last season to the top. Fonzie, nonexistent in the first pilot, was largely Henry’s concoction: the script envisioned a cloth coat and penny loafers; he proposed a leather jacket and boots. And it was Winkler who, he explains pedantically, developed the character’s “Aaaayyy”—”I am reducing an entire sentence to a single sound, traditional to the theater since cavemen.”
The Fonz’s slogan may be “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse,” but Winkler’s own life is hardly hedonistic. He drives not a cycle (“they’re dangerous”) but an Audi and hasn’t risked a vacation in seven years. Only recently did he give up a cramped furnished apartment for a modest two-story house over the hills from Hollywood. “I have no trouble finding the women I need right now,” he reports, but says, “I would like to find someone who needs what I want and not what I need—which is having to prove myself instead of just being. I have to change myself before I settle down.” Cindy Williams (Laverne and Shirley), an ex-date, translates. Winkler, she says fondly, is “analytically intense, and polite to the point you want to tell him, ‘Knock it off.'”
For the moment, though, Winkler seems fixated. He concedes to being “a very formal person, living in chronic rigidity, always making too many rules for myself.” He turns down most bids from talk and game shows, preferring live appearances (including an Ohio straw-hat gig in Room Service at $30,000 per week). He refused a part in the TV movie Moneychangers because the role—a forger who’s raped in prison—”didn’t seem right at the moment.” And though he fully intends to finish out the remaining two years of his Happy Days contract, he won’t take on another series, even a proposed Fonzie spinoff, for now anyway. “If I haven’t got the strength to make it on the big screen, then I’ll reconsider my position.” Last October he appeared in Katherine, a TV flick exploiting the Patty Hearst story, which he regards as “my proudest moment on celluloid.”
“I think more than I feel,” he says, “and try to solve problems that might come up instead of enjoying the moment. I’ve always been waiting for my life to start, but it’s started.” Fonzie may be the genie that set up his career, but Winkler’s aspirations ride on his ability to stuff The Fonz right back into the bottle.