Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, Talks His Storied Career Ahead of FAN EXPO Denver | Westword

Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, Discusses His Storied Career Ahead of FAN EXPO Denver

"I want to be standing and looking at everybody eye-to-eye. And the warmth that I feel, the genuine warmth, is a gift that you couldn’t get in 2,000 birthdays.”
Meet Henry Winkler and a host of other legends at FAN EXPO Denver, June 30-July 2.
Meet Henry Winkler and a host of other legends at FAN EXPO Denver, June 30-July 2. FAN EXPO

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TV legend Henry Winkler is bringing his unique brand of super-cool to FAN EXPO Denver this weekend, as one of the event’s many special celebrity guests. Winkler will be there as part of the Scream crew of stars, but his list of career credits far surpasses even that fan-favorite franchise. From his decade-long work on Happy Days to his producer and voice acting work as well as his Emmy Award-winning role on Barry, Winkler has enjoyed a storied career — and become an entertainment icon.

Not only was he the Fonz — a character TV Guide once named as one of the medium’s most memorable characters of all time — but in the 1970s, he was everywhere. Lunchboxes, comic books, vinyl albums, school notebooks, Saturday morning cartoons. In 1976, the MEGO corporation made an eight-inch action figure that could extend its thumbs in the requisite “Aaaayyyyyy” gesture. A bronze statue of him was erected in 2008 in the Happy Days city of Milwaukee. His ubiquitous leather jacket now hangs in the Smithsonian.

“That was an amazement,” Winkler reflects. He adds that he owns at least one of the many toys created after Arthur Fonzarelli, even up to the present day with collectible Funko Pops. “It’s been incredible,” Winkler says. “You can never tell what’s going to happen or how things will turn out, but I’ve been able to live my dream to the nth degree.”
One of the many commercial tie-ins back in the 1970s was a novelty album. “They wanted me to make a record, and I told them I can’t sing,” Winkler laughs. “And they said, 'Don’t worry, you’ll sing one note, and when you hit that perfectly, we’ll go to the next note, and we’ll piece it together.' I said, 'That would be a lie. You can’t do that.' So they put out [Fonzie Favorites].” That album is notable for its jacket having a cut-out in the back so that it could stand up on its own, as well as serve as a fan photo of the Fonz, complete with a superimposed button on his jacket that says "SIT ON IT."

click to enlarge henry winkler
Fonzie Favorites record album from Juke Box International, 1976.
Teague Bohlen
But the fans are the reason that Winkler's coming to Denver, and he says their connection to his career is, at this point, all over the map. “It all depends on their age,” he says. “It starts with Happy Days, but then there’s Scream, Waterboy, Arrested Development, Parks and Rec. And now, of course, Barry.” And that’s only a crib note of the list of career highlights for Winkler.

His stardom has been quite a ride — though not on a motorcycle, which Winkler, unlike his most famous character, didn’t know how to operate. “I got my first job in Hollywood on the Mary Tyler Moore show,” Winkler recalls. “I had seven lines, a really minor character. I was just happy to be working, doing what I dreamed of doing. Two weeks later, I got the Fonz. It was that quick. And all of a sudden it exploded, and here I am today.”

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Winkler, even after the massive success that was Happy Days. “I figured, 'Well, I’m known in 126 countries; I’ve got this beat,'” recalls Winkler. “And of course, people would then not hire me because I was the Fonz.” He’d become, as it happens sometimes in Hollywood, a victim of his own popularity.

For some performers, that’s the end of their story, outside of maybe a reunion special or a guest appearance on a sitcom or game show. Winkler instead chose to reinvent himself in Hollywood. “I started to produce,” Winkler says, “and the first show I did was MacGyver,” a show that would last for five years and become a TV legend in its own right.

Winkler also made a name for himself in voice acting. Despite an early start with the popular series of educational cartoon shorts Schoolhouse Rock (in which he played a Fonzie-style guy learning about gravity), Winkler says that breaking into voice work took considerable time. “It’s just such a very small world,” he says, “but I love it.” What began as a starring role in the Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning vehicle Fonzie and the Happy Days Gang expanded to include South Park, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Duck Dodgers, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, all the way up to his work on Rugrats and The Legend of Vox Machina. “I have the best time,” Winkler says.

click to enlarge henry winkler book cover
Henry Winkler also writes books for children with dyslexia.
Grosset & Dunlap
Back in 2003, Winkler also branched out into children’s books with partner Lin Oliver. The series was based on Winkler’s own experience with undiagnosed dyslexia as a kid, and the books themselves are printed in a typeface designed by an artist in Holland who had dyslexic children and wanted to make it in a style they could read. “I have parents now who come meet me with their children, and the children tell me, ‘Yours is the first book I was able to read.’ I mean, what a great compliment,” he says. Winkler and Oliver have now produced 39 books, 28 of them in the Hank Zipzer series. Winkler also has an autobiography coming out in October, and says he’ll be bringing some of his many books to FAN EXPO for fans.

“I’ve been to Denver many times,” Winkler says, “not only because it’s a great city in its own right, but also because I travel through it to get to trout fishing in Idaho.” Winkler is an avid fly fisherman, but admits he doesn’t tie his own flies. “I know my limitations,” he laughs. Writing is clearly not one of them, as evidenced by his 2013 book of photography and philosophy, I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River.

“I mostly stand in front of the table when I’m at events like [FAN EXPO Denver],” Winkler says. “I don’t sit behind a table. I want to be standing and looking at everybody eye to eye. And the warmth that I feel, the genuine warmth, is a gift that you couldn’t get in 2,000 birthdays.”

It’s the fans that matter, says Winkler: “Without them, the show wouldn’t go on.”

Henry Winkler will appear at FAN EXPO Denver on Friday, June 30; Saturday, July 1; Sunday, July 2; Colorado Convention Center, 700 14th Street. Single-day passes are still available; photo ops with Winkler can be pre-arranged here.
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