Henry Winkler felt lost when he hung up his iconic leather jacket in 1984 after playing the super cool Fonzie for 11 seasons on ABC’s nostalgic sitcom “Happy Days.”
“I didn’t know what to do any more,” admits the 64-year-old actor, producer, director and children’s book writer. “I didn’t have the drive that got me ‘Happy Days’ and gave me the ability to do it for 10 years. I don’t know why. But I was rudderless at the time, which is psychically painful.”
So while he was finding his acting rudder, he produced such TV shows as “MacGyver” and “Mr. Sunshine” and directed such films as 1988’s “Memories of Me,” starring Billy Crystal.
Winkler finally returned to acting in the 1991 TV movie, “Absolute Strangers,” in which he played a husband with a comatose pregnant wife. And he hasn’t look back.
Last week, he was introduced on the season premiere of USA’s popular “Royal Pains,” as the scam artist dad of Hamptons’ doctor Hank (Mark Feuerstein) and his accountant brother Evan (Paulo Costanzo). Winker’s Eddie Lawson had taken “borrowed” money out of his sons’ bank account and hadn’t paid them back, causing dire financial problems for the brothers.
Though Eddie seems like a happy-go-luck guy, a big-talker with equally big ideas, there is a darkness to him that made him abandon his two young sons and dying wife 20 years earlier.
“It’s a wonderful character,” says Winkler over the phone from New York where he is filming his fourth episode of the series. “It’s a wonderful show. Sometimes you are just blessed when you get to do a great show.”
(Winkler also appears in the new Cartoon Network live-action comedy series, “Children’s Hospital,” which premieres in August. “I am forbidden from using the word wacky, but it’s the wackiest thing I have ever done in my life.”)
Of all of his hats, the one he likes to wear the most is actor. “I am the most proud of the books I have written with Lin Oliver, but I am the most happy acting.”
Winkler says he was a better actor when he returned to the craft after his seven-year hiatus. “There’s no doubt about it,” he offers. “When I first started doing interviews I would say when you are 55 you finally put it all together. And it turned out that was absolutely true about me. I literally grew into a better actor and the time off away from acting, though I missed it very much, may have been a blessing in disguise.”
He’s been fearless in his acting choices since his return, notably in his three-part turn on ABC’s “The Practice” 11 years ago as a dentist with a fetish who is tried for murder — he earned an Emmy nomination for his performance — or as the incompetent attorney on Fox’s comedy series, “Arrested Development.”
The actor, truly one of the good guys in Hollywood, loved his years playing Arthur Fonzarelli, a.k.a. Fonzie and the Fonz. “I love him today,” he says. “When I was taking pictures for your article, we were in the strip in-between Park Avenue with the tree and the grass and people on both sides as they went by yelled ‘hello.’ I see Fonzie as a gift.”
As a kid, Winkler had learning difficulties. But he compares himself to “the toy with the sand at the bottom where you punch it and it goes down and it comes right back up to center. That is the way I see myself. You fall down, you get up and dust yourself off and you just have to keep moving.”
(He finally learned at the age of 31 that he had been dyslexic all of his life after his stepson was diagnosed with the learning disability. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s me.’ ”)
During the heyday of “Happy Days,” Winkler was a pop culture phenomenon. The ears of fans who went to a taping of the show on the Paramount lot are probably still ringing more than 30 years later because of all the screams when the grease monkey Fonz would appear, flip up his thumbs and state, “Haaayh!”
Winkler kept his head turning this crazy time. He was already in his early 30s and had off-Broadway theater experience, let alone a masters in dramatic arts from Yale. He empathizes with today’s young stars who must deal with celebrity before they are ready for it.
“Thank goodness that I was older,” says Winkler. “There is nobody to tell them [today] what the etiquette is. They are immediately international stars, which is wonderful thing. But you have two halves to the circle and if you are not careful, the one half of the circle will eat you alive.”
He also credits the show’s strong producers including Garry Marshall. “They didn’t tolerate bad behavior,” Winkler says. “I was going to my very first appearance outside of Hollywood to Little Rock, Ark. I was going to catch a plane right after the taping and Garry was on the microphone and was going to introduce the guest cast. I said, ‘Garry, we have to hurry because I am catching a plane.’ He came up to my afterward and said to me, ‘Don’t ever do that again. The guest cast has the same right to be introduced as you do!’ ”