By Mandi Bierly
Updated June 10, 2010 at 09:01 PM EDT
Credit: Patrick Harbron/USA Network

Image Credit: Patrick Harbron/USA NetworkTonight, Henry Winkler joins USA’s Royal Pains (USA, 10 p.m. ET) as Eddie R. Lawson, the errant father of Hank (Mark Feuerstein) and Evan (Paulo Costanzo). In August, he’ll make his debut on Childrens Hospital, a twisted webseries created by and starring Rob Corddry for moving to Adult Swim in July. (The webisodes will air first, then the original episodes shot for TV that feature Winkler as the new hospital administrator.) We recently caught up with Winkler, who more than earned his reputation as the nicest man in Hollywood by insisting we take the couch so we could look out the window and enjoy the view of Central Park from a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. That’s where he was spending the day doing press for Open Arms, an educational campaign to raise awareness of both upper limb spasticity, a condition his late mother lived with following a stroke, and the therapeutic use of Botox that can give sufferers back the use of their arms. (Visit for more information.) We found out who he was most excited to meet on the Royal Pains set (24‘s Mary Lynn Rajskub, who also guests in tonight’s episode), why Childrens Hospital is the “wackiest” thing he’s ever done, how he’s preparing for the Arrested Development movie, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you end up on Royal Pains?

HENRY WINKLER: I watched the show [last season] with my wife. We saw every episode. The producers called me up, and I was so excited. We met at this restaurant in L.A. We ordered breakfast. I’m chatting away and chatting away, and I am so nervous that I have taken the cream for my decaf coffee, and I have now poured it as if it was syrup on my pancakes. I’m thinking to myself, I don’t know. Do I say anything? I decided to just eat my pancakes. I thought, They make buttermilk pancakes, so I’m having just a little more added. So I’m sittin’ there, having my pancakes and hoping they didn’t notice. And, of course, we’ve talked about it since. I had the pleasure, the honor, of being invited to have lunch in the writers room in Santa Monica to talk about the character. That doesn’t happen every day to me. Mark took me to dinner in L.A. before we left [to film in New York]. He said, “Father and son have to eat a big slab of meat.” I had a big slab of salmon. I should have had that slab of beef. I go to the set, and I meet Paulo, who gives me a gigantic hug, and of course, I hugged him right back. “My son.” We start doing a scene, and I’m telling you from the first millisecond it was as if we had been doing this for years together as a family. Meanwhile, [co-creator] Andrew Lenchewski’s father is a good friend of my wife’s dentist. How small is this world? [Ed. Very small — Feuerstein met Andrew after Andrew’s father, a dentist himself, took out his wisdom teeth some 13 years ago and suggested Mark look up his son when he got back to L.A.]

You’re an actor everyone loves, playing a con man who left his sons years ago when their mother was sick and who has now put them in financial jeopardy. Was the opportunity to play against type what drew you to the part?

No, I didn’t know this. They’re finding the role as it goes. We knew that he dresses as if he had money, but doesn’t. We knew that he was a little bit of a con. But I think that he is also emotionally damaged but loves his sons. I think that he is unbelievably hurt that Hank just doesn’t give him a break. Evan loves Eddie. He loves me. I have a scene tomorrow that I hope I don’t screw up, because it is powerful, when I finally tell Hank to back off. Oh. My. God.

How long is Eddie sticking around?

I don’t know, and I can’t ask.

You really haven’t asked?

No. [Laughs] I have a minimum of five episodes. And oh, you know who I met on the set? Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chloe from 24.Ohmygod, I got to meet her. I walked up and I said, “Can I give you a hug? I’ve not missed one episode of 24.” I wish there was somebody like Jack in the world. I would just feel safe. I read thrillers. I read Daniel Silva, Vince Flynn, Lee Child. He’s very much like a Vince Flynn novel. Kiefer [Sutherland] just was quintessential, really. And, if he whispered any lower whatsoever, I would have to crawl inside my television to know what the hell he was saying. There are not that many action heroes like that anywhere on the landscape. In the movies, Matt Damon in the Bourne films, was pretty damn good. He was the real deal.

Let’s talk about Childrens Hospital. I’ve seen the trailer. Megan Mullally is shown trying to tongue you, and them slapping you silly. WHAT?

Okay, “WHAT?” is the question of the season. Megan has forbidden me from saying the word “wacky.” I’m supposed to say either “meta comedy” or “deconstructionist comedy.” It’s wacky. It is the wackiest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life. I did not even understand what I was doing. All I knew was that I was in the midst of this group of people: Erinn Hayes, Malin Akerman, Mr. Corddry, Jon Stern, David Wain, Ken Marino, Rob Huebel, Lake Bell. There are no words. They are separately funny, combined they are an explosion.

Were you at all nervous about taking comedy that far?

No, I never thought about [it]. [Laughs] I didn’t know which direction where we were going. I was a GPS that was unplugged. I had no idea where they were taking me. I went, “Kick a baby in the crib? Okay, I can do that. Why not?” Don’t know. Don’t know.

What is the craziest thing they had you do?

That was one. Running down the hallway saying, “Don’t touch me. I am an alcoholic!” [Laughs] was pretty out there. Oh, this gorgeous Russian woman talks me out of my passport. Oh yes. And then I rented her an empty hospital room as a hotel room. [Pause] That was good. [Laughs] Megan Mullally walking with an undefined body-twisting ailment in her walker — sometimes watching her, she was so funny and so inventive in each take, that I forgot what I was doing. I forgot that I was in the scene. Oh my god, that was like amazing. Oh, Oh, I speak. No kidding.

So you’re more likely to forget to say your line than you are to ruin a take by laughing?

I used to laugh. I try not to laugh.

What is your technique for that?

Biting the insides of a lot of parts of my head. [Laughs] Digging my fingers into my genitalia. It was not easy. Each one of them is funny. But then they all wrote an episode, they directed episodes, they produced, their wives wrote, their wives acted. Jon Stern and his wife have Rhode Island Red chickens in the backyard, and their son collects the eggs in the morning for breakfast. Their chicken was in a scene in the hallway in the middle of the hospital. I’m not kidding. “Was that a chicken that just went down the hallway?” “Oh, okay.”

Does that level of creative freedom compare to anything you’ve experienced in the past?

No, but I have been very fortunate. I’ve worked with Garry Marshall and Tom Miller, who is a human being in his own category, on Happy Days. I worked with Ron [Howard] as an actor and as a director. I worked with Adam Sandler. I’ve worked with Mitch Hurwitz, and hopefully, if he ever does write that Arrested Development movie, we’re gonna work together again. I email him all the time. On my recent book tour for my children’s books [he’s the co-author of 17 Hank Zipzer novels], there wasn’t a human being who didn’t ask me about it. I say, “I’ve just emailed him, and he assures me that there is a movie, and he’s writing it. And I, at this moment, have on chiffon underwear, just so that I can keep Barry Zuckerkorn alive.” But I worked with all of these great people, and sometimes, you don’t do anything but listen. You just say “yes” and do it. And you don’t even question it because you know that these people know. It’s not even a matter of “Oh, I have an idea.” You just say, “Got it. And I’ll do that.” And look where it’s gotten me. They’re all right. In the structure of what they set up for you comes a freedom. And sometimes I ad-lib up a storm, and the take used, I’ve gone back to the text and it’s better than anything I’ve ever thought of. Just go back to the source, and shut up and do your work.

What are your favorite TV shows?

I love Modern Family, The Good Wife, The Closer. I love Damages. I was a tremendous fan of Royal Pains. Now I’m really a fan of Royal Pains. I love Rachel Maddow. I have a Rachel Maddow Show hat. It’s like my prize possession. I’ve never met her, but I have the hat.

What’s one of your most memorable fan encounters?

Wherever I go in the world, the warmth I receive is enormous. I took my children to the Hopi Nation, and the families live on the mesa in Arizona. At the time that we went, some of their electricity was using the battery in a car to watch TV. Because the Fonz was respectful to Native Americans on Happy Days, walking by one of their homes, the mom came out with freshly baked bread. She just said, “I have nothing else, but I want to give this to you.” That is the microcosm of the way that I’m treated. On a mesa in Arizona.

Well remember, I knew Tom early on because he did Bosom Buddies. The Paramount lot at that time was like an incredible campus. You had Little House on the Prairie, you had The Odd Couple, you had Taxi, you had The Associates, you had Bosom Buddies. Then, of course, Laverne & Shirley started, and Mork & Mindy. Then all the sudden Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters would [walk] down the street going to lunch and stop and 300 people would gather, and they would put on a night at the Improv. Unbelievable.

Last question: Tom Bergeron has said he’d love to see you on Dancing With the Stars. Any chance?

I’ve been asked to do it many times here. I’ve been asked to do it in England. I don’t think that I’m going to do it in this lifetime. Now that’s a bold statement. Now it’s in print. I think you can take that to the bank. I know my limitations. But if Bruno ever got the flu, I could be the guest judge.