Just as many of my favorite celebrity interviews have begun, Henry Winkler called me himself – without a publicist or handler acting as a middleman – and gave me a hearty greeting.
“Hi, Henry Winkler here,” said the iconic 67-year-old actor known around the world for playing Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli on “Happy Days.”
Fresh off a flight from Italy, where the star was promoting his popular “Hank Zipzer” series of children’s books, Winkler’s spirit showed no signs of fatigue. In fact, Henry Winkler was and is one of the kindest and most humble stars I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with.
This weekend (May 31-June 2), Winkler will appear at the Wizard World Convention in Philadelphia, where he will greet fans and answer questions about his 40-year career that unbelievably transcended 10 years as one of the most popular sitcom characters of all time, and crossed into the worlds of film, theater and literature.
Check out my complete interview with Mr. Winkler below, where he reveals the music superstar who invited him roller skating, his fascinating piece of “Happy Days” memorabilia and the “most amazing surprise” of his life.
David Onda: What’s the question that you get asked the most?
Henry Winkler: Wow, that’s such a good question. Do I know how to ride a motorcycle?
Onda: And what do you tell them?
Winkler: I tell them, “No, I don’t.” I did not ride a motorcycle, I cannot ride a motorcycle and I’m not really upset by that fact.
Onda: I would have guessed people ask you about your favorite “Happy Days” episode.
Winkler: Well, that’s also another one, but I don’t have one because I love them all.
Onda: It’s well known that Fonzie was not initially intended to be the star of “Happy Days.” Do you remember the moment you realized the character had taken on a life of its own?
Winkler: We came on in February, and in April I made a personal appearance in Arkansas in Little Rock. I was paid $1,000 to go there and sign autographs. I got off the plane at about 11:30 at night and there were 3,000 people in ’50s clothing waiting at the airport to say hello. And that was the first time I ever experienced quite anything like that. That’s when I knew.
Onda: When the character first took off, was there anything about being famous that surprised you?
Winkler: The relentlessness of it. You had to really adjust your life, because half the circle was putting the show out there, the other half of your circle now, in professional terms, is dealing with the reaction. People were very, very excited – by the show, by the character and by seeing me somewhere on the street anywhere in the world. We were in 126 countries, so no matter where I went to visit, people invited me to dinner.
Onda: Were people surprised when you weren’t exactly like The Fonz in real life?
Winker: I got a call from Cher, who invited me – she had monthly or weekly roller skating parties, and I was invited to go to the rink. And I had to decline, because I was traveling or something. And as we were talking, she said, “Wow, you don’t sound like The Fonz. Not in the way you speak and not in the way that you sound.” And I thought that was lovely. I knew her sister [Georganne LaPiere], I had met her sister, because I believe her sister was an actress on “Happy Days,” did a guest appearance.
Onda: There were so many great guest stars on “Happy Days.” Did you have a favorite?
Winkler: You know, I don’t think in terms of favorites. Ever. Because I’m so enjoying my life that everything that happens I go, “Wow, this is great.” We just finished a “Ghost Buddy” – one of the four novels in the series “Ghost Buddy.” We just turned it in. And then you think, “Wow this is the greatest, this is funny, this is the funniest one.” Until the next one, then you go, “No, no, no, this is good, this is the good one.” It’s like that with everything I do. I live by two words: tenacity and gratitude. Tenacity gets you where you wanna go, and gratitude never lets you be angry along the way and lets you love the journey.
Onda: Would you credit that to the longevity of your career?
Winkler: No, I would credit that to living.
Onda: That makes sense! Fans are really excited that you’ll be appearing at the Wizard World Convention in Philadelphia.
Winkler: Yes, that’s so much fun. I never stand behind the table. I never sit behind the table. I only stand in front of the table and I look the men and women or the boys and girls in the eye, and I get to meet people I would never have met in my life. And I get to introduce some of the children to “Hank Zipzer” or “Ghost Buddy.” I bring my fishing book “I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River” along. People talk to me about “Arrested Development,” about “The Waterboy,” about “Happy Days,” about “Royal Pains.” Fans from every area come and say hi, and it is delightful. And then you top that off with a Pat’s Cheesesteak.
Onda: What’s the most unusual piece of memorabilia you’ve ever seen your face on?
Winkler: A jump rope. A Fonzie jump rope.
Onda: I don’t recall Fonzie jump roping.
Winkler: I don’t think he ever did, no. He went roller skating with Potsie, but I don’t think he’s ever used a jump rope.
Onda: Do you have a piece of memorabilia you’ve saved from any of the projects that you’ve done?
Winkler: I’ll tell you what I did, I saved something from everything. I have all of “swag” from every show that I’ve either produced or acted in or directed. I have – there was a board that was nailed to the set outside of Arnold’s. And we put our coffee cups on this board as we made entrances during rehearsal. I have that board. And on that board, I would write things like, “Ron Howard just had a daughter this morning,” “I had a daughter this morning,” “It is the beginning of the seventh year.” You know, stuff like that. What an amazing piece of my life.
Onda: Looking over your filmography, it doesn’t seem like you had trouble finding work after “Happy Days”…
Winkler: I had trouble. I had trouble for 10 years. That’s when I became a producer. I’ve produced – if you put the shows, each episode, end-to-end, it comes out to 19 years of series. “MacGyver,” “Sightings,” “So Weird,” “Hollywood Squares.” It was 1991 that my acting career started again. And now I’m having the greatest time.
Onda: What would you have done if didn’t become an actor?
Winkler: I would be a child psychologist.
Onda: I expected you to say you’d be a writer, since you’ve had so much success with “Hank Zipzer” and “Ghost Buddy.”
Winkler: No, that is the most amazing surprise in my life. Bar none. I never thought that I would write. I am dyslexic. I grew up thinking I was stupid, and the fact that I would even consider writing a book – I thought was out of the question. And then I was so smart that I said, “Yes, I will try.” And now here we are 10 years later having written 24 novels. Not bad.
Meet Henry “The Fonz” Winkler May 31-June 2 at the Philadelphia Wizard World. He currently appears on the rebooted “Arrested Development” and the Adult Swim series “Childrens Hospital.”
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.