LOS ANGELES, California—Henry Winkler has just returned from his first pre-Emmys event and is still abuzz. There’s a Variety magazine on a table in the entryway open to a “For Your Consideration” ad with his face on it. “Unbelievable, this is an unbelievable moment in time,” Winkler says when I point it out, moments after he welcomes me into his Brentwood home on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. “It’s just incredible.”
The Television Academy-hosted party took place “on a rooftop somewhere deep in Hollywood,” just blocks away from Paramount Studios, where Winkler showed up to work nearly every day from 1974 to 1984 to shoot Happy Days. The Manhattan-born actor likes to point out that he was 27 years old when he first arrived at Paramount to play the Fonz and is now 72 with an Emmy nomination for playing Bill Hader’s acting teacher Gene Cousineau on HBO’s Barry.
He mingled at the party with some of the other actors in his category, including Baskets’ Louie Anderson (“so wonderful, I mean really delightful, he is just a citizen of the world”) and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry (“that was a lovely embrace”).
“It was really warm and lovely,” he says, before dropping the perfectly timed punchline. “An hors d'oeuvre would have been nice.”
Winkler has received five Emmy nominations over the past four decades without ever taking home a trophy. He was nominated three consecutive years for Happy Days, losing once to Jack Albertson from Chico and the Man and twice to All in the Family’s Carroll O’Connor. “He was incredible as Archie Bunker,” Winkler says of O’Connor. Then comes the joke: “I mean, you know, he could have shared a little bit.”
An Emmy win would be a meaningful bookend for Winkler, who has never quite managed to escape the shadow of his most iconic character. “It became a double-edged sword only after the show,” he says. “One side was very sharp and the other side was not so sharp. Meaning that I loved playing the Fonz. I reaped the benefits of being on this show for 10 years, worldwide.”
To illustrate just how well-known Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli is, Winkler tells me the story of taking his son Jed on a trip to visit the Hopi nation in Arizona when he was in the third grade. When they got there, they had to lock the family camera in the car because it is against the law to take a picture of the Hopi. “They believe you take their soul,” he explains. “But because the Fonz was respectful to Native Americans on one episode out of 255, they said, ‘Go get your camera.’ That’s the microcosm of the way I’m treated today in 2018.” Not a day goes by, he says, when someone doesn’t come up to him to say, “I love the Fonz.”
The more cutting side of that double-edged sword, however, means it took about 10 years after Happy Days ended for anyone to even consider giving Winkler the chance to play another character. Along the way, he experienced a number of failures and false starts.
There was the politically charged sitcom he was really excited about called Monty that Fox picked up as a midseason replacement in 1994. Winkler starred as a loud-mouthed conservative pundit modeled on Rush Limbaugh. A young Cynthia Nixon was supposed to play his lesbian daughter but the network deemed her role too controversial and forced them to replace her with a pre-Friends David Schwimmer as his son who wanted to be a chef instead of a lawyer. The show ended up running for just six episodes.
“Horrible, horrible,” Winkler says now of that experience. “My lesson is, if you find a project and you’re doing it and you love it and they start to bastardize it, go home. It will never be why you said yes.”
Two years later, his friend Wes Craven cast him as the principal in the first Scream movie, but the studio refused to even put his name in the credits, let alone the poster, because he was still so well-known as the Fonz. “You’ll knock people out of the reality,” he says they told him.
When the film first screened for audiences, Winkler says his character got applause when he walked on screen. After that, producers asked him to do press for the movie and he replied, “You won’t put my name on the movie, but now you’re asking me to do press?”
It was during this period that Winkler started producing shows like MacGyver and Sightings. He could stay behind the camera and not have to confront what had turned into the unfortunate stigma of his biggest success.
After 11 seasons on Happy Days, Winkler was not strapped for cash, but he wanted—no, needed—to act. “If you have a daughter and she’s going to college and she’s got a credit card, you’ve got to work,” he jokes. But more importantly, he adds, “It’s not the amount of money one has, it is the need. I truly believe that retirement, just giving up, is when you become a prune. You must remain relevant, and I don’t mean famous. Anything that keeps you vital, that keeps you relevant, will keep you alive and grateful.”
With that in mind, Winkler says he has no plans to retire from acting. He’ll keep going until he can no longer function. “And then maybe they’ll write a part for me where I have a walker,” he says. “You never know.”
It wasn’t until 2003 when Arrested Development came along that things really started to turn around for Winkler’s career. Contrary to popular belief, it was not his old Happy Days co-star Ron Howard who landed him the role of Barry Zuckercorn, lawyer to the Trump-esque Bluth family, who makes Michael Cohen look like a legal genius. It was the show’s creator Mitch Hurwitz who wanted Winkler for the part after casting him as a politician in another “ill-fated” pilot. The character was only supposed to make a few appearances, but 15 years later, the show’s fifth season is on Netflix and Winkler has been in at least 30 episodes.
Winkler is hesitant to get involved in the dispute between stars Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter that erupted during a recent New York Times interview. “There was always a little tension there, between the two of them,” he tells me, saying he never witnessed the type of angry outburst that Walter described Tambor directing her way on set. “Jessica is really great at what she does,” he adds, praising the “stainless-ly steel comic timing” she displayed during their scenes together in the most recent season.
The second half of the show’s fifth season is scheduled to stream on Netflix later this year, but Winkler says he has no idea whether the show can or will continue on after that. “I am so out of the loop,” he says. “I don’t have the slightest idea.” He says he “put in a call” to Hurwitz about it not long ago but hasn’t heard from him. “Mitch is an extraordinary writer,” he says. “He’s not a great caller-backer.”
The type of comedy he was doing on Arrested Development, which was “so, so different” from what he had done before, led to recurring roles on Parks and Recreation as Jean-Ralphio’s clueless dad and Children’s Hospital, a show he once made the mistake of calling “wacky” in an interview. “I was taken aside, reprimanded and told I must call it ‘meta,’” he recalls. “I did that show for six years out of the seven and I almost never understood the jokes. I’m not kidding.”
You can draw a direct line from those performances to his work on Barry, arguably the most fully-realized performance of his long career. For many viewers, the scene that perfectly elucidates the character of Gene Cousineau is the audition he delivers for “Man in Back of Line” in episode four. Gene receives applause from his acting students when he walks into the theater classroom, but still struggles to book a measly background part. He gives the casting director “two options,” neither of which land him the gig.
“The audition scene was so sad, so true,” Winkler says. “He just doesn’t get it.” Like his students, Gene so desperately wants to be a real actor, but it’s “not in the cards.”
Max Winkler, the actor’s 35-year-old son, helped his father prepare for the Barry audition. An accomplished TV director in his own right (New Girl, Casual, Brooklyn 99 and more), Max helped his father nail the tricky tone Hader and his co-creator, Silicon Valley’s Alec Berg, developed for Barry, which can swerve on a dime from broad comedy to high-stakes action to devastating drama.
“He heard the rhythm of the writing,” Winkler says of his son. “He wanted me to actually say what was written, that was important to my son.” It was the same note he got from Hader “if not once, a hundred times” while shooting. “Bill said to me, ‘Henry, please, could you just say what we wrote so I could hear it one time?” Winkler says, noting, “my mouth and my brain don’t always make friends.”
For decades, Winkler has been outspoken about his struggles with dyslexia—and is about to publish the 30th book in his Hank Zipzer series written for children with the learning disorder. However, he says it wasn’t until four seasons into Happy Days that he realized why he was having so much trouble reading the scripts aloud during the table reads.
“So I just thought I was stupid,” he says. “And I was embarrassed every Monday morning at 10 o’clock.” With Barry, he requests the scripts early so he is as familiar with the material as possible before he reads it for the first time with the other actors.
Winkler credits his dyslexia with helping to develop his skills as an improviser. In those early days, he would go into commercial auditions by memorizing as much as he could and then ad-libbing the rest. It worked. He booked a lot of commercial work without anyone realizing that he couldn’t read lines from the page in real time.
Barry’s first season finale ends with a flash forward to Gene Cousineau’s lakehouse, where Gene and his girlfriend Detective Janice Moss (“How great is she?” Winkler says of Paula Newsome) are spending a relaxing couples’ weekend away with Barry and Sarah Goldberg’s Sally. Everything seems like it might work out for the eponymous hitman-turned-actor when an offhand comment from Gene makes Janice finally realize that Barry is the suspect she’s been searching for. Ultimately, only Barry walks away from their dramatic confrontation by the lake.
Between the hilariously awkward acting class scenes and his aggressive wooing of Detective Moss, Winkler’s character was mainly used for comic relief in the first season. But are things inevitably headed in a darker direction for Gene now that Barry has mercilessly killed Janice in a desperate act of self-preservation? “That might actually be true,” Winkler says, carefully. “I will go wherever they take me.”
“I want to keep my tongue,” Winkers says when I press him for details about the second season. He has just received the first two scripts and will sit down days later for the first table read. Given the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first season, Winkler acknowledges the “pressure” they all feel to top themselves in season two. But he’s learned to “shut up, sick back and trust,” adding, “I don’t doubt for one minute that these guys are going to pull it off.”
Winkler remembers reading that last script of the first season and seeing the stage directions: “Through the window of the cabin, you see two flashes of light.” He called Hader up immediately and pleaded, “Please, please, I’m having such a good time. Am I shot? Am I dead? Am I only in the first season?” The show’s creator assured him that he’s not going anywhere.
The difference between now and when he was first nominated for an Emmy 42 years ago, Winkler says, is that now he understands “you either win or you don’t win, but I’m still on the show.”
When I ask what an honor like that would mean at this stage of his career, Winkler takes an uncharacteristically long pause. “I think that if anything, it is that the people voting liked what I’m doing, this thing that I dreamt about since I was seven,” he says eventually. “That I will always be an Emmy winner and not an Emmy nominee.”