"If you believe you are who they say you are," says TV legend Henry Winkler, "you're going to get hit in the mouth by a two-by-four of fate."
The actor, who starred on the sitcom "Happy Days" from 1974 to 1984, speaks from experience.
His hoodlum-with-a-heart-of-gold character, "The Fonz," was ranked Number 4 on TV Guide's list of 50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time, between no less than Lucy Ricardo and Archie Bunker. Fonzie's trademark leather jacket now belongs to the Smithsonian.
Winkler's iconic status also made him the first choice of playwright David West Read to star in the new Broadway comedy The Performers. Winkler plays Chuck Wood, a man renowned for his large parts in the adult film industry. "Henry's the ideal person for the role," Read says, "because he knows what it is to be an icon."
Read was also a fan of Winkler's comic turn as the fumbling family lawyer on the critically acclaimed sitcom "Arrested Development." "I love people who can laugh at themselves," Read adds. "And he's so beloved; I take sadistic pleasure in making such a sweet person say such raunchy things."
But Read's raunchy romantic comedy is also unexpectedly sweet. Set in Las Vegas on the night of the Adult Film Awards, the play follows the life (and love) lessons learned by a sheltered young couple when they get mixed up with a pair of adulterous adult film stars. While there's no nudity onstage, audiences can look forward to seeing Broadway's favorite hunk, Cheyenne Jackson, in a loincloth.
|photo by Matt Hoyle|
Ultimately, it's up to Winkler's character to end the evening with a bang, as it were. But unlike Chuck Wood, Winkler refrains from giving advice to his younger co-stars, which include "Clueless" star Alicia Silverstone.
"What I have learned over the years is that for the most part you just shut up until somebody asks you a question," Winkler says. "And being a dad, you also learn to talk in short sentences."
For the last ten years, the actor has shared his life lessons in a series of semi-autobiographical children's books he's co-authored about Hank Zipzer, "The World's Greatest Underachiever." Like his fictional counterpart, Winkler grew up on New York's Upper West Side and struggled with dyslexia, a learning disability that wasn't diagnosed until he was 31 years old.
"I was told I would never achieve, that I was stupid and lazy," Winkler says. "But I had a will that I wanted to be an actor so badly." Despite ranking in the bottom 3 percent of his class, the aspiring thespian went on to Emerson College and the Yale School of Drama before coming to New York, where he opened and closed in one night on Broadway, in a play called, appropriately, 42 Seconds From Broadway. But he found work in commercials and enjoyed the camaraderie of a group of young actors that included Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep and the future producer of The Performers, Robyn Goodman.
"He told me he was off to Los Angeles to audition for a TV show," Goodman recalls. "I said, 'I'll see you when you get back.'"
The show, "Happy Days," lasted 11 seasons and is the second longest-running show in ABC's history.
|Photo by Carol Rosegg|
Having grown up a clean-cut kid who was bullied, Winkler relished playing the coolest guy around. "He was my alter ego," Winkler says. "Everyone I wanted to be, the Fonz was." Early on in "Happy Days," Winkler's dyslexic difficulties with hand/eye coordination caused him to nearly crash his prop motorcycle into the director of photography. For every motorcycle scene over the next ten years, he was pulled around on a board, giving new meaning to the show's catchphrase, "Sit on it." Like his new alter ego Chuck Wood, Winkler suffered a career crisis when "Happy Days" ended: "For about eight years it was really difficult to get a job as an actor because I was typecast. So I started producing and directing. And then I realized I was doing so many jobs, I only wanted to do one — I wanted to act."
A call from Neil Simon to do a cold reading of his new play — a terrifying prospect for someone with dyslexia — brought Winkler back to Broadway in 2000. The Dinner Party, which also starred TV star John Ritter, ran 11 months.
At 66, Winkler now finds himself an in-demand actor, playing roles in three TV series ("Royal Pains," "Children's Hospital" and the anticipated return of "Arrested Development") and the new Kevin James film "Here Comes the Boom." Another call to do a cold reading of a new play still proved terrifying to Winkler, but he couldn't resist the hilarity and humanity of The Performers. Nor could he resist the performers themselves, saying, "Everyone in this play is a home run hitter."
And, of course, there's the lure of the veteran actor's first love. "One of my favorite things," he says, "outside of my family and fly fishing for trout, is going to the theatre. I vibrate when I'm sitting there waiting for the show to start."
Given the subject matter of The Performers, he's bound to feel those good vibrations onstage, too.