Henry Winkler is back in New York City for the first time in a year and a half, and he’s nervous. Not that it’s unfamiliar territory—he grew up in Manhattan (where his parents still live), did commercials and theater here in the early ’70s, and won his first major movie role here, as a greaser in 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush.
The reason for Winkler’s case of the butterflies: He’s backstage at Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, waiting to promote his new Fox sitcom, Monty. ”I have known Regis for my whole career, and we always have a great repartee,” says Winkler, 48, trying to calm himself. ”And now that I’ve said that, today I will fall on my face.”
This self-doubt is a surprise coming from the man who personified ”cool” as Arthur Fonzarelli in the 1974-84 sitcom Happy Days; Winkler says he’s used to people confusing him with his character. ”Cher called and invited me to one of her birthday parties years and years ago,” Winkler recalls. ”And she said, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t sound like the Fonz.’ I’ve lived through that.” But Winkler says he has nothing but good feelings about his Happy days. ”Look what the Fonz did for me,” he says. ”(There was) an autistic child who spoke her first word to me, which was ‘Fonz.’ The mother passed out. That alone is why you do what you do.”
Winkler quit acting for eight years after Happy Days, producing TV series (MacGyver, Sightings) and directing movies (Memories of Me). He started acting again in TV movies in 1992, and plays a right-wing TV host in Monty. ”It’s not just based on Rush Limbaugh,” Winkler says. ”If there were any comparisons I’d like to make, it’s All in the Family. Maybe I’m the Archie Bunker of the ’90s.” Then he adds doubtfully, ”But I don’t know.”
Winkler’s spot on Regis goes smoothly—the crowd cheers at photos from Happy Days and at a scene from Monty—and he seems more confident as he steps into a limo afterward. He asks the driver to stop when he sees that a fan has brought a program for 42 Seconds From Broadway, Winkler’s sole Broadway play, which closed in one night in 1973. ”I gotta sign this,” he says, rolling down the window.
”The Fonz all the way!” the fan gushes. ”I love your show.”
Winkler hands back the program as the car starts to pull onto Columbus Avenue and says a bit sheepishly, ”And now you’re going to watch Monty, right?”