Friday, September 21, 2018

Henry Winkler: An Emmy at Last

The comic hit-man genre, it seems, never gets old. Witness the success at this year’s Emmys of Barry, the HBO dark comedy co-created by Bill Hader: he has just won a performance Emmy as a low-rent hit-man who suddenly decides he wants to give acting a try. A second Emmy, well-deserved, went to ageless Henry Winkler, for his role as a pompous, name-dropping acting coach. From everything I know, the statuette couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy.

Henry Winkler, of course, first entered America’s living rooms as Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, better known as Fonzie or The Fonz, on the hit nostalgia sitcom, Happy Days (1974-1984). Initially, Winkler was slated to be a minor player, but his breakout success as a cocky but lovable greaser-type quickly took him into the major leagues of TV comedy. While writing the biography of Ron Howard (Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . .and Beyond), I learned a good deal about the relationship between an established young star and a rising one. The fact that Howard and Winkler became (and remain) close friends is a tribute to two of the industry’s finest gentlemen.

Howard, playing squeaky-clean high schooler Richie Cunningham, was supposed to be the star of Happy Days. But audiences fell hard for the motorcycle-riding, leather-jacketed Fonzie, and Winkler quickly became the show’s breakout attraction. As attention shifted away from Richie, Howard was publicly philosophical, acknowledging that “there was something immediately electric about Henry. . . . The show was trailing in the first season. Henry got the demographic for us.” It was due in large part to Winkler that more than seventeen million households were soon tuning in to Happy Days, leading to job security and fat paychecks for the entire cast. Yet there’s no denying that Howard’s own morale suffered. At the start of the third season, the Fonz was brought into the Cunningham household as a boarder and surrogate son. Howard bore this change with grace, but couldn’t stomach the network’s later suggestion that the series be renamed Fonzie’s Happy Days. Fortunately, series creator Garry Marshall agreed with Howard, and the familiar title was kept.

Howard (only twenty but a TV veteran), had much to teach the 29-year-old Winkler. He gave  him some valuable tips on production etiquette, and coached him to success as the pitcher on the traveling Happy Days softball team. And the friendship continued long after the show ended. Circa 1981, when both men were new fathers, People Magazine revealed, in an item titled “Pappy Days, ”that they spent their get-togethers debating the relative merits of Pampers and Huggies.

When Howard, moving into directing, launched his first big studio movie, he took Winkler with him. The film was Night Shift, a wild and crazy 1982 comedy about two opposites who form an ill-fated business partnership. Chuck Lumley is a mild-mannered nebbish who had become a morgue attendant because he wanted something quiet. Bill Blazejowski is the hyper-animated “idea man” who proposes to made the morgue do double-duty as a brothel. To play the electric Billy Blaze, Howard cast newcomer Michael Keaton. As Chuck, Winkler got to play a leading man not far removed from his own amiable, low-key personality. Though he loved being Fonzie, Winkler had sometimes yearned to show his stuff in a less outrageous role. But while he was playing a quietly comic version of himself, Keaton walked off with the movie. The  lesson, of course: be careful what you wish for.

I’m thankful to Bill Hader and Barry for giving a talented (and very funny) good guy another chance to shine. 

Winkler and Howard, together again at the 2018 Emmys

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