Growing up in the ’70s I had ONE hero:
He was known as the “coolest”. He’d hit a wall and jukeboxes would play over the world.
Nobody would disagree with him. Everybody loved him. We all wanted to be like him.
Paul McCartney said in the ’70s: Henry Winkler, who played The Fonz, was the most famous man in the world. Even more famous than the Beatles.
Winkler went on to be in some of my favorite shows. Arrested Development. Adam Sandler movies.
And now Barry, the new show on HBO that just won 13 Emmys in it’s first season, something perhaps never done before by a sitcom.
And now, BUCKET LIST MOMENT:
I was sitting right across from my childhood hero, interviewing him for the podcast.
We were at the comedy club, Stand Up NY, that I often perform at. And, by coincidence, he grew up right next to the club. (The club is on 236 W. 78th. He grew up at 210.)
He said, “When I was 27, I left here to play ‘The Fonz’. And now, flip the numbers, at 72, I’m right back where I started and being interviewed by you.”
I can’t believe that I was the completion of The Fonz’s full circle.
You have to understand: Every single day (reruns) for a decade I watched this guy on TV.
And here he was.
And so, just like Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard, who became one of the biggest directors ever), I decided to learn everything I could from Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, aka Gene Cousineau (Barry).
A) Acting = Relax + Concentrate + Listen.
“The center of all relationships is the ear. It doesn’t matter what you meant, it only matters how it landed on the other person.”
B) Don’t take the safe choice.
You make a choice that will put you in jeopardy and because you have chosen to just step over the line, to step out of your comfort level, it forces you to see how resilient you are, how powerful you are, how you could handle what you thought you couldn’t…
When the nerdy, Upper West Side Jewish Henry Winkler had to audition for The Fonz – a tough Italian kid from the streets – he had to pretend to be everything he wasn’t and dive right in to a character he knew nothing about.
C) Feel blessed.
Henry Winkler had his down years. He turned down the role in Grease after his 11 season run at Happy Days was finished.
Why? Because he didn’t want to be typecast as a guy in a leather jacket.
He had no job, nothing happening, and he was afraid of only being known as The Fonz when he was still young and desperate to continue acting.
But every day, he says, “I felt blessed”.
Henry is a nice guy.
That’s what everyone says about him. And after he left the podcast, after taking pictures with each of the 40 or 50 people watching the podcast, that’s what everyone said.
And I’m sure through his career, he catapulted from job to job on the basis of relationships like Ron Howard, Robin Williams (who made his start battling The Fonz) Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development), Adam Sandler (he ended up in many Adam Sandler movies), and ultimately Barry.
E) Strong marriage.
Happy wife, happy life. Henry’s been married for over 40 years. His wife was watching the podcast.
I asked her how she reacted when Henry was feeling down about being so typecast in the ’80s.
She told me, “He was always a success for me. I always knew he would find his way through and I would tell him every day.”
And she was right. Henry’s story is not about being the Fonz. Or the 13 Emmys of Barry.
It’s a love story.
F) Don’t feel entitled.
He was the biggest star on the planet at one point. But he had no problem auditioning for the role he played on Barry.
G) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“I became a producer, I don’t understand business acumen, I don’t know how to do it.. I just did the parts I do know… there’s always someone to help you with what you don’t know…”
H) Don’t be afraid to do nothing.
“Doing nothing is not forcing the issue.” He needed to do nothing for several years after Happy Days in order to reinvent himself.
I) Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Poke fun at yourself. “I’m the only actor in the world who has jumped the shark twice.”
J) Make your weaknesses your greatest strengths.
For Henry, dyslexia. He didn’t read his first book until he was 31.
So in order to remember his lines, he had to really remember the motivations of each actor.
Not only did this make him a better actor but he said, “If I couldn’t memorize it, it means the writer didn’t give these characters motivations.” I found this to be great writing advice.
K) Keep improving.
“When I was 27, I knew who I wanted to be as an actor. At 72, I am getting closer.”
ABI – Always Be Improving.
His wife Staci says this is the best he’s ever been.
Again, the story of the Fonz is a love story.
And that’s why he’s always the coolest.
Links and Resources
Barry on HBO
Yale School of Drama
My Interview with Brian Grazer
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park