Henry Winkler on “The Fonz”

The Backlot Podcast: Henry Winkler

  • Henry Winkler
  • An Acting Career
  • Fonz in Happy Days
  • Henry Winkler a Director
  • Earn the Trust of Your Cast and Crew
  • Winkler’s Dynamic Career
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Henry Winkler

Eric: Hi and welcome to the backlot discussion with the entertainment industry’s top talent. I’m Eric Conner, and at long last, I am no longer alone in this recording booth.

Aeriel: Hi I’m Aeriel Segard a graduate of the acting program and a coordinator here at the New York Film Academy and I’m beyond excited for this episode about the one and only Henry Winkler.

— My place 10 o’clock be there.

Until we get all the facts, don’t say anything that can incriminate you or me just try to keep me out of this.

You talk too much. I will give you a quarter if you just stop talking.

I would let him go unless you want to make medical history.

I just had the best Italian meal I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve been to Dallas. —

Aeriel: Eric is so excited he’s literally playing with an action figure of the Fonz. You realize that no one can see your Barbie doll.

Eric: First of all he’s not a Barbie doll it’s a vintage Fonz figure and he gives me strength because he’s the Fonz. By the way, this wasn’t even the only time Henry Winkler spoke at our school. He gave an incredibly funny and uplifting speech at graduation and then I had to go on stage and talk after him. Not easy.

Aeriel: Well, I’m sure you did fine. If you don’t know who the Fonz is from Happy Days your parents didn’t raise you right.

Eric: But we’re here to help you learn. Henry Winkler’s acting career actually spanned decades.

Aeriel: He’s brilliant as Barry Zuckercorn, the world’s worst attorney on Arrested Development.

Eric: Also, there’s. Parks and Rec, A whole bunch of Adam Sandler films and Ron Howard’s night shift he’s directed features he’s directed for TV.

Aeriel: And produced tons of shows including MacGyver. But before Henry Winkler did any of this he trained and worked like a madman to get into auditions.

An Acting Career

Henry Winkler: Acting is not acting. Acting is reacting. Acting is just being. It takes a long time to just be to trust. When I did plays in college I had two costumes for the same part because I sweat so much because I was so nervous because I wanted to be perfect. That at the intermission I had to change costumes. I now only have one costume. You know it is a metaphor but it is so true. There is no perfection. There is no right. There is no wrong when you go into audition. You cannot be right. You can fill that time and space the way you imagine it. And let the chips fall where they may. I’m so dyslexic it was hard for me to read the script and act at the same time. I would improvise. The director or the producer said, “excuse me that’s not the way it’s written.” I said, “that’s because I’m giving you the essence of the character but here it is.” It works. You go in and you be your imagination. You cannot know what they want because they don’t know what they want when you walk in that room they’re not always sure what they want. So you tell them what they want and if they don’t want you then you say, “that’s okay I’m so happy to meet you. I’m going to go down the street and I’m going to work for them. And if I don’t work for them I’m going to go over there I’m going to work for them.”

And that kind of energy is going to get you work. You know what. Here it is. It’s hard. It was hard then. It’s hard now it’s hard. So it is what it is. So if you’re going to play the game if you’re going to do it you play the cards that are dealt you they’re looking for somebody or they wouldn’t have an audition. You know what I mean. There’s no definition. There’s you in the room. That’s all there is. And how do you get in the room? I don’t know. You figure that out. You don’t stop until. You get in the f**king room.

Aeriel: OK. I’m inspired. Earlier in his career, Mr. Winkler stuck to the old Shakespearean quote “to thine own self be true.” Even if that meant carrying your things in a paper bag.

Henry Winkler: It is good to know what to do. It is good to know what not to do. Don’t be rude. Everything else is up for grabs. You know I brought with me from New York my portfolio. My pictures, that I had of the plays that I did and I had them in a little plastic album and I didn’t have a leather case and I put them in a Ralph’s brown paper bag and people said you can’t do that. I said why not. I don’t why you can’t do that you got to present yourself. Well, the fact is that the brown paper bag became a topic of conversation.

It opened the conversation and I realized everybody is going to tell you what not to do. Everybody is going to tell you what to do. I will go back to where I began. You know what to do if your instinct is saying wow I shouldn’t do that. Don’t if it’s saying I really feel like I got to go for the gold. I’ve got to try this do it. You’re going to get the part you’re not going to get the part. What you have to lose?!

Eric: Eventually Mr. Winkler landed what was initially a small role in Happy Days.

— I’m going to save you for last and what we’re going to do we’re going to do alone so sit down.

Give me a good reason to beat your brains in.

Get out of here slimeball. —

Eric: And that was the game-changing moment of his career even if it sort of disappointed his parents.

Fonz in Happy Days

Henry Winkler: My parents were very very very very very very very very short, German Jews. They had just called me to say they were taking my sister. And “what’s his name” and me on a trip to Europe. Because they did not know how long they were going to be around. That was 1973. And I was in my apartment and on Laurel Avenue and I got a call from the producers and they said, “would you like to play this character?” And I said, “OK!” And then I called my parents and I said, “I don’t think I can come on this trip. My career is starting I just got a small part on a series in Hollywood.”

My mother said, “oh this is nice here tell your father.” When the show became popular and the Fonz took off all of a sudden my parents were lobbyists. They sat in the lobby of hotels in Miami. “Yeah, we’re the Fonz’s parents.” I’ve met people all over the world who said, “hey! I’ve got your parents autograph.”

Aeriel: Director Garry Marshall was actually looking for a tall hunky Italian man. Not exactly the picture of Henry Winkler but he killed the audition.

Henry Winkler: I wanted to be an actor since I was 7. I ate through brick in order to get my dream. I wanted to do what I did. “If you will it, it is not a dream.” Phrase said first in 1946 at the birth of Israel. But the fact of the matter is what I have realized over my life if you will it, it is not a dream, is the deal. It is not just a beautiful needle pointed pillow if you know what you want and you never let it out of the forefront of your brain. You put one foot in front of the other. You train yourself the best you can. You prepare yourself the best you can for what it is you want to do you will end up at your destination. I was told that I would never achieve. I was told that I was stupid I was lazy. I was not living up to my potential. So when I got the Fonz and it grew into ten years and I lived that extraordinary experience I lived my dream. I willed it. I did not know what I wanted to do after. And I want to tell you if you don’t know what it is you want it is painful when you are rudderless.

It is painful. And then you just have to take a moment and really decide what you want. Write it in red and put it up on your mirror that you brush your hair in front of every day. And that you walk toward with every action you brush your teeth with what you want, you eat your breakfast with what you want, you stay healthy with what you want. I’m not kidding. If you don’t know what you want, stop for a moment, make that decision and you will be shocked how you will shoot like a rocket in that direction.

Eric: To say the Fonz took over the universe barely covers. I mean he was bigger than The Avengers and The Transformers combined. He was everywhere. Lunchboxes, t-shirts –

Aeriel:  – action figures-

Eric: Yes, and action figures. He even had his own cartoon set in space for some reason.

–We got it all together now gang. The Fonz! Oh, now gang got zapped into that time machine and they’re like, traveling. They do not dig where that machine is going, but they sure hope to get back to 1957 Milwaukee. – Can you dig it? – Yeah! —

Aeriel: The Fonz used to just smack the jukebox to make a song play his directing career started almost as quickly.

Henry Winkler a Director

Henry Winkler: So I’m on the Paramount lot. We’re doing Happy Days. It’s toward the end. They’re doing a show called “Joanie Loves Chachi.” They couldn’t find a director for the 13th episode. I walked up to the producers the producers were really nervous and they were trying to figure this out and I said, “hey, I’ll do it.” They went, “ok!” I went, “I’m just joking.” I said, “no, OK!” And that’s how I became a director. I didn’t know much about the camera because I’m very dyslexic so I have no idea what that line is. Everybody talks about crossing well I’ll tell you.

I have no idea. But there’s always somebody who is great to help you do what you don’t know. So you bring what you do know to the party. And slowly but surely you listen and you are the final word. You have to take responsibility for your choices as an actor as a producer, as a director, as a writer, because the fact of the matter is if you listen to everybody else and you ultimately do what they’re telling you and you go down you’re going to say, “oh my god! I went against my instinct and it turned to mush.” If you go down and you go down in your own flames dust myself off and I move on.

Eric: Keep in mind he had a lot of mileage as a performer that made him ready to direct.

Aeriel: Yeah lots of directors know how to film. But some of them focus more on their lights than their actors. Mr. Winkler’s experience in TV made him the right guy for Memories of Me it’s a bittersweet comedy with Billy Crystal and the late Alan King.

Henry Winkler: I was an actor first I didn’t know that I was going to direct everything that I learned as an actor. I used as a director. Every time I was on the set I watched everything and you ask questions and the crew will just be so happy to tell you why they’re doing anything. But there are a lot of people who are great with the camera who cannot talk to actors who cannot get performances.

When you study acting even if you don’t want to be an actor you learn what it is how difficult it is to take the word and transform it into a living walking breathing human being. You then know the process and you can communicate so much better with your actors. What I also learned is 70 percent of your work as a director is casting. So you will be very careful and you will know in the same way that you know when you meet the right boy or right girl you get that feeling in your stomach you will get that feeling in your stomach when the right actor walks in the door or actress and they just own the part you’ll know it. Do not go against your instinct. Your inner voice your instinct knows everything.

Eric: Mr. Winkler also stressed that trusting your casting director and really just being decent with people helps with work tremendously.

Henry Winkler: Even if I don’t use an actor I keep their picture because you never know and because you want to use them but it’s just not right for this film. The casting director – you have to really depend on their taste. They have to know who is out there. They have to feel the process as powerfully as anybody else on that movie because they’re bringing you in you’re seeing these people and people are coming. And also let me just say that it’s really lovely to be lovely. You know? I don’t know that a film is better because someone yelled at everybody. I don’t know if that’s like a great method. There are actors that have come back to me that said, “I’d rather be said no to by you just because you treated me like a human being.”

There is no reason why you have to be anything other than that treat people the way you want to be treated.

Eric: Being a leader on set isn’t about screaming the loudest or acting like a megalomaniac.

Aeriel: Wow, that’s a really big word for you, Eric.

Eric: I even had a look up how to spell it.

Aeriel: It’s about trusting your own instincts and the crew around you.

Earn the Trust of Your Cast and Crew

Henry Winkler: OK here it is who you are. Will earn the trust of the cast and the crew. You never know where a great idea is going to come from and if you love your crew they will die for you. If you respect them and if the costume designer comes and says, “So I was thinking of a teal,” and if it doesn’t go against your aesthetic grain you say, “oh my God what a brilliant idea!” And you invest every one of that crew with your trust and you will get it back. The fact of the matter is I truly believe that the center of the relationship between you and the world is not your mind. It is not your heart. It is your ear. It is the way you hear what is being said to you and I’m telling you if you listen and the actor is telling you, you can take a nugget out of all the talk and you can say, “that makes sense. Let’s try it! Would you please try it my way and then we will try it your way?” And you’ll be surprised what comes. You know it’s the fear of giving up your power. There is no power. Power is a mirage. Power is your personal strain power is that you feel comfortable. You’ve got an overall vision.

If the thing whatever it is doesn’t compromise your integrity your vision. Why not?

Aeriel: Memories of Me wasn’t a box office smash but it’s a great character piece that opened doors for him to direct other films.

Eric: Including projects that his gut told him not to take such as the buddy cop movie. Turner and Hooch starring Tom Hanks teaming up with a dog.

Henry Winkler: I was the darling of MGM when it existed. Alan Ladd Jr., the guy who said yes to Star Wars at Fox was the head of MGM at the time. And he cried he loved this movie nobody but him saw it just went like a rock to the bottom of the ocean. And then I was asked into another movie, Turner and Hooch. I read the script and I thought I get this but Jeff Katzenberg called me. He said I want you to direct Turner and Hooch for Disney. Jeff Katzenberg. Disney. My instinct says this is not for me I don’t know how I don’t like this Katzenberg! Disney! I went against my instinct. I prepared it for five and a half months. I was fired 13 days into shooting. I went home in a daze. I thought this is it. I think it was like last Tuesday I got over that.

Aeriel: Henry Winkler wanted to be an actor. You never thought he’d become a director but he did. He never thought he’d get into producing either but ended up doing that too.

Winkler’s Dynamic Career

Henry Winkler: I reached the goal in that I got to be the Fonz I wanted to earn my living acting and I did it in. Bigger than I ever imagined it.

I got letters from 126 countries girls took their jewelry off and sent it to me in the mail. And then I didn’t know that I could produce and my lawyer said you know what I’m going to make you a company and I’ll put you with people who know what you don’t. And we did McGyver and we did sightings and we did so weird. And I thought because I was so dyslexic I thought I was actually stupid that I couldn’t produce that that was like something other people did. If you took everything I produced and you put it end to end, I produced 19 years of series.

Eric: And as someone who battled dyslexia his whole life who was told by his teachers that he was not smart enough. The last thing he ever imagined he’d become was an author.

Henry Winkler: I was bad in math and science and English and reading and comprehension and in history. I was great at lunch and somebody said when there was a lull in my acting career, “Why don’t you write books for kids about your learning challenge?” I said, “I can’t write books. That’s stupid! I’m stupid,” and walked away. Two years later the same guy said “Why don’t you write books for kids about your dyslexia?” This time I went, “OK. Here it is. This is the truth.” You don’t know what you can do unless you try it. You don’t know what you’ve got inside you what you can accomplish until you just put one foot in front of the other and go Hey I think I can do this. I’m going to try it. I’m not kidding. I’m living proof

Aeriel: Mr. Winkler ended his inspirational Q&A with a reminder to our students that much of their success is ultimately up to them.

Conclusion & Goodbye

Henry Winkler: Let me just say this to you. I was where you were. You will be where I am. It’s up to you. The distance between where you are now and where you want to go is all up to you. The line between the two is as thin as the thread you so your button on with. You have the power. You are very powerful don’t second guess your power. Don’t think about right and wrong. Just do what you for yourself know is right. You are all great. You have a gift. You dig that gift out you give it to the world. We are all the same we all are the same as living human beings. If you come from your center from your humanity and you throw it out there it’s going to touch other human beings. Does that make sense. I wish you the best of luck. I really do.

Eric: As Ma Connor always told me always listen to the Fonz.

Aeriel: We want to thank Mr. Winkler for his amazing Q&A and for his graduation speech and well just for being him.

Eric: And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner and hosted with the wonderful Aeriel Segard. Welcome to the party.

Aeriel: Thank you.

Aeriel: Edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden, and produced by David Andrew Nelson, Kristian Hayden, and Eric Conner.

Eric: Executive produced by Jean Sherlock, Dan Mackler, and Tova Laiter. A big thank you to Chris Devane for bringing in the incomparable Henry Winkler and for moderating his Q & A.

Aeriel: Special thanks to Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible.

Eric: To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts.

In this podcast episode sit down with the actor, director, and producer Henry Winkler, best known for his role on Happy Days as The Fonze.