Winkler struggled with his own weird experience of the monster he created. At the height of it, he met Stacey and her son, married Stacey, had two more children and traveled all over the world as a superstar. But he couldn’t help wondering, in a more essential way, what it meant. “That character got through as early as age 3,” he said. “I had children come up to me and go, ‘Ayyy!’ It was amazing. I’m not kidding. And half my brain knew this was a good thing, a pragmatic thing, this was keeping the show on the air. And the other half I never let in, someone telling me how much I meant to them. Because I realized early on, nothing about me had changed. I was still short. I still couldn’t spell. I still had trouble reading. Being a star didn’t fix any of that.”
By 1984, “Happy Days” had been slipping in the ratings for eight seasons, so it shouldn’t have been such a shock when it was finally canceled. Winkler did his impression for me of his younger self, at the moment he realized it was over, sitting in his office at Paramount with his head in his hands. “I never thought past this. I’ve lived my dream. I have no idea what to do.” He asked himself: “Will I ever do anything as powerful as the Fonz? Do I do anything less? What do I take, what do I turn down, ‘Oh, that’s too much like the Fonz.'” He desperately wanted to distance himself from the character he helped create. “I thought I could beat it. I was manic about not being typecast. When I met Jed” — Stacey’s son from her first marriage — “he said, ‘Hi, Fonzie,’ and I said, ‘Would you like it if I called you Ralph?’ I was already instructing this 4-year-old. It was insane.”
Think about iconic characters from long-running hit shows: George Costanza, Ally McBeal, Don Draper, Norm, Niles, Rhoda, the cast of “Will and Grace,” “Sex and the City” or “Friends.” As an actor, you spend years inside that character, you become that character, sort of, and then your show is canceled and it’s time to grow and evolve, to convince casting directors, studio execs, writers and audiences that you’re someone new . Inadvertently triggering associations to your last gig ruins that. If you look up the word “typecasting” on Wikipedia, you can read about the struggles of William Shatner and Patrick Stewart, or you can just watch “Galaxy Quest,” a movie about a bunch of typecast “Star Trek”-type actors miserably signing autographs at low-rent fan conventions. After 178 episodes and four films in his Starfleet uniform, Stewart told The London Times in 2007, “It came to a point where I had no idea where Picard began and I ended.” (Stewart, by the way, is back with the Enterprise crew and is three seasons into “Star Trek: Picard.”)
“ ‘Happy Days’ was a blessing and a curse,” Bob Balaban told me. Balaban and Winkler had known each other since the 1970s but got closer in the spring of 2019, in France, shooting “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s movie, in which they play the art-dealer brothers. “Henry is an absolutely wonderful actor,” he said. “But it took nine or 10 years for the frenzy over the Fonz to calm down enough so you could put him in something, and he didn’t enter into your serious movie and get laughter just because he was the Fonz. Movies are about believing, acting is about believing, and it’s hard sometimes to believe somebody when you think you know them that well.”
In 1977 Winkler starred in the film “Heroes,” which did reasonably well at the box office but was widely panned. Vincent Canby called it “truly rotten” and called out Winkler’s performance in particular as a kind of terrifying bellwether. Winkler brings “to the motion-picture theater all of the magic of commercial television except canned laughter,” he wrote, adding that it was “a frighteningly bad film because it could well be the definitive theatrical motion picture of the future.” The critics were just getting started. The following year Winkler starred in “The One and Only” (“alternates between the coy and the cute,” Canby Film) and the year after that an Americanized TV adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” (“unnecessary and pointless,” Tom Shales wrote).
“The audience that came wanted to see what they liked, and I thought I was being a clever, clever person doing something that would not typecast me,” Winkler said. “When I look back now at ‘The One and Only’ or ‘Heroes,’ I see an actor who is limited. I am no leading man. There is no leading man in me. I’m a character actor.”
When I asked what a great acting teacher like Gene might have done to help restore the talents of a 36-year-old superstar coming off 11 years as Fonzie, who might have lost focus or intensity or grown stuck in a certain persona, Winkler was momentarily silent.