When Robin Williams appeared on the studio floor of Happy Days, Henry Winkler—The Fonz—remembers a shy young man. That changed when he started performing, and Winkler saw the ferocious energy, and electric improvisation and invention that made Williams great.
Speaking by phone, Henry Winkler says contentedly that he is in a house “full of grandchildren and their parents.” And so one of his primary thoughts, the day after Robin Williams’ suspected suicide, is with Williams’ family and their loss. “He had a 25-year-old daughter,” Winkler says simply and sadly.
Winkler was there at a pivotal moment in Williams’ career—when Williams first placed the alien Mork in an episode of Happy Days that aired in 1978, in which Winkler played The Fonz.
After the success of that appearance, Mork & Mindy itself debuted the same year, and from that unfurled Williams’ much-lauded film career, with movies including Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting.
Here, in his own words, Winkler remembers meeting Williams for the first time, and seeing up close the ferocious energy, and electric improvisation and invention Williams bought to his role. No matter that Williams was a guest artist that week, Winkler knew he was observing “greatness.” Williams wowed the cast, and reduced them—inevitably—to fits of laughter.
Winkler’s words have been edited.
Robin’s first big job in Hollywood [he had previously appeared in The Richard Pryor Show] was on Happy Days. He played Mork in one episode [in 1978]. We rehearsed Monday from 9 a.m. until Friday at 5 p.m. We shot the show at 7 p.m. that day in front of a live studio audience. It was a limited amount of time: it was done like a play.
That week, on the Wednesday morning, we still didn’t have a Mork. All of a sudden on Wednesday afternoon, Bobby Hoffman, the head of casting, came down to the studio floor and said to us, “I’d like to introduce you to Robin. He’s done stand-up, he’s never done TV. He’ll be Mork.”
Robin was a quiet, unassuming, shy young man. That vanished as soon as we started to rehearse. He became a torrent of comedy. There was nobody like him. There are very funny people who tailor their material. What he would do is swallow the world. Honest to God, you watched it in front of you: Robin would internalize something, then blow it back in a completely different shape, Robin-ized.
There’s one moment, where The Fonz says, “Hey, you wanna rumble?” And, all of a sudden, he was in the middle of a musical number from West Side Story. There was no thinking about it. There was no distance between his brain and what came tumbling out of him.
I then appeared as The Fonz on the pilot of Mork & Mindy. And that was that: he was off. The Happy Days scripts were 48 pages long, the Mork & Mindy scripts were 30 pages long. On the Mork & Mindy scripts, there would be a space where it would say, “Robin will do something here.”
He wasn’t trying. He wasn’t being anything other than himself as an entertainer: It was just a need that pushed out from every pore in his body. When you worked with him, your job was to keep a straight face. It was almost impossible. If you watch the Happy Days episode, you can see me almost “going.” I can’t tell you how many times the director had to shout “Cut” because there was so much laughter.
You knew you were in the presence of greatness. From the minute I watched him work in Happy Days, I knew I was in the presence of something very special. It was his ability to reinterpret the world that was happening right in front of him. He made whatever was going on his own, and with such lightning speed you stopped concentrating.
You were not frustrated. You just got out of the way. You thought, “This is a very special person.” He wasn’t trying to make trouble, he wasn’t making anything up, he wasn’t being anything other than what he was, he was just being. That kind of person deserves all the space he wants. He needed to exist that way. It didn’t matter that I was The Fonz. Either you appreciate it, or you go home—it’s way bigger than you.
If you saw it in front of you, your pencil would drop, your tablet would fall from your lap. Robin had so much energy, the electricity from your electrical device would fizzle. I’m not exaggerating. This is not hyperbole. I have been around a large variety of people: men, women, children, funny, dramatic—he carved his own avenue in the world.
He was very warm, just a lovely, lovely person. They are big shoes to fill, and I don’t believe they will ever be filled again. It’s been 30, 40 years, and I don’t think there is anybody in the entertainment world working like that today.
Robin’s death is almost too big to wrap my head around. I can’t imagine a bigger life force than him. I’m incredibly sad for his family.
Of his performances, I particularly liked Mrs. Doubtfire and Awakenings—but there were so many. Because he was so particular, he could do everything. He was one of those men who could comfortably move from comedy to drama, from drama to comedy, to drama with comedy. It was effortless for him.
Whether the movie was good or not didn’t matter. His performance was packed to the brim with empathy. And that is another word that describes him: “empathetic.”
I saw him on a number of different occasions since Happy Days. No matter how long it had been I was always met with that wonderful warmth. I do not ever hold back. There is nothing cool about me. If something like that, like Robin, touches me that deeply I will say so—and I did. I said to him, “I’m amazed. I won’t even ask you how you do it, I’m so glad I’ve been here to see it.” Other times I would say how wonderful it was to see him, and congratulate him on all the success that had come his way.
He was a man of very few words, and would give me a hug.