There was a time, between 1974 and 1984, when Happy Days‘ Arthur ”The Fonz” Fonzarelli, as embodied by Henry Winkler (No. 32 on EW and TV Land’s list of the top TV icons of all time), simply defined cool — and it wasn’t just the leather jacket and the perfect hair. This 1950s greaser carried himself with the kind of unironic, macho self-confidence that was in short supply during the disillusioned 1970s. The moment Winkler — a Yale School of Drama grad — flipped his collar, cocked his thumbs, and smirked his trademark ”Aaaay,” all was right with the world.
As for Fonzie jumping that shark, an event that’s become shorthand for when a show’s past its prime? We like to consider it a charitable donation to the pop-culture lexicon. When we spoke with Winkler about the Fonz, however, the actor (now 62 years old) sees the iconic moment a bit differently.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to be considered a TV icon?
HENRY WINKLER: I’m very proud that I am in that category. It’s hard for me as an individual to actually look in the mirror and see an icon. I see a husband, a father.
Was there a moment in the early years of Happy Days when you realized just how popular Fonzie was?
We were in Dallas [and] 25,000 people showed up at a mall to say hello to us. One of the guys [on the show] asked me, ”Do we deserve this?” I said, ”That’s not really the question. They’re here. Just say, ‘Thank you.” People have an image of who you are. You have to remember you’re not who they think you are. As much as I wanted to be able to do it, I couldn’t part the Red Sea. And I tried to figure out how to, but it just never happened.
Initially, it wasn’t supposed to be a big role, right?
Well, he was on the fringe. I had six lines. I worked one day a week. So the other four days, I sat in my apartment, because I didn’t think you could go out and play on a work week. And [the character] grew steadily, and then all of a sudden there were episodes that were being written about this character.
When I think about the iconic parts about the Fonz, it was his leather jacket, and his catchphrase, ”Aaaay!” How did they come together?
The leather jacket came when [exec producer] Garry Marshall made a deal with ABC. [The network] said, ”Yes, all right, you can use him in leather only when he’s with his motorcycle.” Garry went back and said to the writers, ”Never write a scene without his motorcycle again.” So I always stood next to my motorcycle — inside, outside, in my apartment, in Arnold’s. Didn’t matter where, I was always with my motorcycle. And that’s how I got out of the golf jacket and into leather.
So ABC wasn’t interested in you being in leather?
No, they thought I’d be associated with crime. It went from there to a few years later [ABC] offering my own [spin-off] show, which I thought was the kiss of death. That was flattering, but he lived and breathed in that environment with those fabulous people. You take him out of that, and what do you got? You got nothing. And then the ”Aaaay!” — that came from reducing language to sound. In New York, there is ”f—ing aaaay.” So I spoke the word: ”Aaaay.”
NEXT PAGE: ”I am, truly, the only actor on the Earth who has jumped the shark twice.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do you think the Fonz became such an icon?
HENRY WINKLER: People wanted to be like him. People wanted to be cool. People loved the fact that he took care of his friends, that he was loyal, that he was really nonviolent. He only intimidated; he never actually killed anybody. It seemed like he was his own person, which is something that, for Americans, is really important and really hard to do. Most of us, we just kind of follow the crowd. You don’t feel like you have control. And I think that people wanted that desperately. 24‘s Jack Bauer [is that] now for me. Here’s the tragedy about Jack Bauer: There’s no one actually like him in the government. We’re f—ed. There’s no one actually who can take care of us like Jack Bauer, but you feel if you knew him he would protect you. And that I think the great people on television, you feel if you knew them they would understand you. They would take care of you.
And, of course, the Fonz is also known for the phrase ”jump the shark.”
”Jump the shark,” to me, is America. A guy comes up with a phrase. Whether or not it is true, whether or not it actually means anything to anybody, he got a book out of it, he got a board game out of it. We’re talking about it today all these days later. Every time that they talk about ”jump the shark” in the newspaper, they always show a picture of me — and I had really good legs at that time. Also, I am, truly, the only actor on the Earth who has jumped the shark twice. Once on Arrested Development, I jumped the shark.
Speaking of Arrested Development, you’ve managed to have a strong career post-Happy Days, where many other actors who’ve had far less iconic TV roles have not. How do you pull that off?
Because you want to. I think if I were to give one word to somebody, and I think this is the most important word on the earth: ”Tenacity.” I see myself as one of those toys with sand at the bottom and you punch it and it goes down but it comes right back to center. And that’s what you have to do. If you’re down, you brush yourself off. And you know in your system, I have something to say, I can do this, I want to do this, I will do this. And eventually, that dream will become a reality.
It seems like the fact that you’re personally so different from Fonzie really helped too.
In a way. I had to use a lot of me in the [character]. I changed my body language and the sound of my voice, but a lot of his principles were mine. Look, I got typecast. Still to this day, I’m typecast. People see me, from that generation, as the Fonz. It is a great compliment. I did a play in London over the holidays [last year], in one of the pantomimes. One of the great theatrical experiences of my whole life. You talk to the audience, they yell at you; 1,600 people twice a day, six days a week, yelling and cheering and jumping and shouting. We had 20 little boys and little girls [in the play]. They all found Happy Days [on TV], and they were talking to me in exactly the same language as the kids that I met in Dallas in 1975. Exactly the same. ”Oh my God, when you did this…! Oh my God, you’re so cool! Oh my God, when you did that…!” It was amazing.