When Henry Winkler opens on Broadway Oct. 19, in Neil Simon's new bittersweet drama, The Dinner Party, it will be only the second official performance he has given on that street. The first came some 27 years ago [more about which, you can find out below]. Soon after that fateful day in 1973, what the New York theatre rejected, the world of television embraced, and Winkler was soon the most familiar small screen star in America, playing soulful '50s rebel, Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli, on the hit series "Happy Days." Since then, he has appeared in films ("Night Shift," "The Waterboy"), been a producer of both films and television ("The Sure Thing," "MacGyver") and even directed. But, it has taken The Dinner Party -- which critics are calling Simon's first artistic leap since Lost in Yonkers -- to get him to return to the stage. Winkler talked to Playbill On-Line just as New York rehearsals of the play were beginning.
Playbill On-Line: When was the last time you appeared on stage?
Henry Winkler: 1973, March 18.
PBOL: That's very specific. How do you know the date so well?
HW: Because I opened and closed a play at the 48th Street Playhouse.
PBOL: That would be 42 Seconds from Broadway. It sounds like there's an interesting tale there. Why did it close so suddenly?
HW: You know what, my mother wanted to know the same thing. She thought it was funny. The audience enjoyed it. Clive Barnes didn't.
PBOL: What was the basic storyline?
HW: An actor leaves home, take an apartment with a young girl who lives in New Jersey and his parents can't figure out what he's doing. And they live in an apartment where, if you look out the window and turn your head to the left, you can see Broadway. PBOL: So how did this current gig come about?
HW: I was called in April on 1999 and Neil Simon asked me to read it. Gordon Davidson [of the Mark Taper Forum] wanted to hear the play. We read the play. Then, in July I got a call and he asked me to be in the play in L.A. So we did the play and had a really wonderful time.
PBOL: Was it difficult getting your stage legs again?
HW: It was tenuous in the beginning. And then they came back like writing a bicycle. It wasn't too difficult for long. The anxiety in the beginning was enough for the entire run.
PBOL: The plot sounds intriguing. There are three men in a Parisian restaurant, waiting for some mysterious guests to arrive. Do they know who's coming?
HW: No. They don't know each other! And, as it turns out, it is their ex wived who planned the whole thing.
PBOL: What happens?
HW: I can't tell you! Because it's a mystery. He's written it as a romantic mystery.
PBOL: There have been a few cast changes? Did that cause any difficulties?
HW: No one.
PBOL: Which one plays your wife?
HW: Veanne Cox. She has been with it all along, except at the original reading. She is very funny, very precise.
PBOL: Washington, D.C., is often a tough town for Neil Simon. Were you and the company nervous and were you surprised by the warm reception?
HW: I knew that Neil had a hard time there. I knew he hadn't been there in a while...
PBOL: At one time he said he'd never do another play there as long as Lloyd Rose was employed as a critic.
HW: Right. But, that person was there and every paper in Washington and Baltimore gave the play a good review.
PBOL: The consensus seems to be that this is a richer than usual work for Simon.
HW: Which is what he wanted. He loves to get the audience laughing and then all of a sudden take them on a left turn. There's no intermission. It goes like a shot. He has successfully melded the comedy along with the emotional drama.
PBOL: You've directed and produced often in television and film? Why never in theatre?
HW: That's a very good question. I always thought of myself as an actor of the theatre, and I never thought of directing there. I always knew, from 42 Seconds from Broadway, that I wanted to make that right. It was such a sad experience to open and close so quickly. And then to have this opportunity to do this wonderful play...
PBOL: Throughout the L.A. And D.C. Runs, did you sense any battle in overcoming the preconceptions of audiences mostly familiar with your television work?
HW: No, because the character is so different. He is a very innocent schlemiel. His body is formed like an "S" almost.
--By Robert Simonson