By Michael A. Lipton
April 12, 1993 12:00 PM

HIS LEATHER JACKET STILL HANGS IN the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, not far from Mister Rogers’s sweater and Archie Bunker’s armchair. But nine years ago, Henry Winkler’s career was in mothballs. Happy Days, the ’70s sitcom on which he rode to fame as ultra-cool biker Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, had just ended its 10-year run, and all his attempts to break out on the big screen—in Heroes, The One and Only and Night Shift—had led nowhere. “I went into a period of confusion,” says Winkler. “I’d dreamed of acting since I was 7. But the desire just left me. I was immobile. I didn’t know what to do.”

Fade out? Not the Fonz. Ever since Winkler retreated from the spotlight, the onetime teen idol, now 47, with a slight paunch and gray hair, has been focusing his energies backstage. From a cluttered office at Fair Dinkum, the production company he owns that’s located on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles, he oversees Fox’s UFO “reality” series Sightings and is preparing to film Race Against Time, a USA Network cable movie about an American woman who adopts a Romanian baby. But what’s most on Winkler’s mind these days is his latest project: Universal’s just released Cop and a Half, an action comedy he directed, starring Burt Reynolds and 9-year-old newcomer Norman Golden II.

Winkler’s buddy and former Happy Days costar Ron Howard, whose Imagine Entertainment company hired Winkler to direct Cop, predicts a hit. “He did a great job,” says Howard (whose four children have Winkler for a godfather). Yet for Winkler, directing has been anything but a snap of the Fonzarelli fingers. His first feature film, 1988’s Memories of Me, starring Billy Crystal, “went to the bottom of the ocean faster than any film made by an adult male,” Winkler admits. He topped himself on his next venture, the 1989 Tom Hanks comedy Turner & Hooch. After 13 days of shooting, he was canned. “Let’s just say I got along better with Hooch [a canine] than I did with Turner [Hanks],” he says with a shrug.

In fact the mild-mannered Winkler has never adopted the hard-shell disposition that some feel is necessary in Hollywood. “He’s not a street fighter,” says Winkler’s wife of 15 years, Stacey, 44, making lunch in the four-bedroom North Hollywood colonial they share with their children, Zoe, 12, and Max, 9. “He’s honest, upfront and terribly nice.”

Those qualities could have turned into handicaps on the Cop set. After all, the often irascible Reynolds—executive producer and star of CBS’s Evening Shade—is used to calling the shots. Winkler knew exactly how to play his star. A natural schmoozer (“It lakes him an hour longer than anyone else to leave the set,” sighs Stacey, “because he shakes hands and thanks everyone for coming to work”), he visited Burt on the Shade set before shooting began, then consulted with him each morning on location in Tampa.

The diplomacy worked. “When I had a good idea,” says Winkler, “after everything was said and done, Burt would try it.” Says Reynolds: “Henry was probably real good with me. He is a good director. If he didn’t worry so much about being loved, he’d probably be a great director.”

Tell it to his kids—for whom Dad is, unfortunately, the great director. “I’m known as Mr. Stricty,” says Winkler, proudly ticking off the rules he enforces on everything from homework to telephone time. Stacey laughs fondly at her no-nonsense husband. “The minute Henry goes out of town,” she says, “the kids say, ‘Let’s order Chinese.’ ”

Good director. Great dad. It’s a double bill Winkler can live with. And he’s still the Fonz. When Winkler, a liberal Democrat and avowed Clinton supporter, attended January’s presidential Inaugural, a man asked to have a photo taken with him, explaining that Winkler had saved his life. “Then he introduced himself as former [Beirut] hostage Terry Anderson,” says Stacey. “He’d watched Happy Days re-‘ runs in captivity.”

Come fall, NBC hopes to snare Winkler to star in his own sitcom, playing a Rush Limbaugh-like radio talk show host. But whether he gets the series or not—and whether aCop proves a hit or not—Winkler gives himself a thumbs-up. “I have always known that as I got older,” he says, “I’d get better.”

TODD GOLD in Los Angeles