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Actor Henry Winkler in 2011. (DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS)
Actor Henry Winkler in 2011. (DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS)

Happy days in Banff: My five minutes with the Fonz Add to ...

It happens sometimes. Circumstances conspire to give you, as an adult, the chance to meet the person you idolized as a child, or crushed on as an adolescent. These meetings, cautionary tales suggest, tend toward the disappointing. He’s shorter, or wrinklier, and most certainly grumpier than the sparkly fan-magazine persona for whom you fell.

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And then there’s the Fonz.

At the Banff World Media Festival this week, Henry Winkler has been the man of the hour – his presence causing an unusual level of enthusiasm among what is not typically a star-stricken crowd: well-heeled TV types who have seen and worked with their share of celebrities.

Sure, Winkler, now 68, might be shorter than we might have imagined Fonzie to have been, but nobody could ever call this guy a grump. The actor is the epitome of grace, shaking every hand offered to him, chit-chatting amiably, even planting a big kiss on a surprised cheek after a woman declares, “My 10-year-old self is dying right now.” (Okay, that was me.)

If you are of a certain age, there’s a good chance you spent a period of your life – probably the mid-to-late 1970s; maybe later in reruns – enthralled with one Arthur Fonzarelli: the epitome of cool in his leather jacket – even that windbreaker that preceded it – so suave with the girls, so authoritative with the guys, taking meetings in his “office” (the men’s room!), starting the jukebox with a bang of his fist, commanding the room with a simple “Heyyy.” (The ‘h’ is silent. Not that I need to tell you that.)

Winkler, the unlikely star of the 1950s-set sitcom juggernaut Happy Days, was at Banff this week to receive the festival’s Award of Excellence (described by the festival as going to “an individual whose body of work in entertainment has profoundly touched the lives of audiences around the world.”). Also in Banff for the festival, I secured a five-minute interview with my childhood idol on a harried afternoon.

Five minutes is nothing, but it was enough to get a sense of this sensitive and thoughtful man. It seems clear the heart that generally exposed itself in the Fonzie character, buried deep underneath the Fifties greaser, tough-guy exterior, came from Winkler himself. He was a serious actor, coming out of repertory theatre and graduating from the Yale School of Drama, when he decided to leave New York and give Hollywood a shot. “There was some ambivalence in me,” he explained. “Do I do a television series?”

He had $1,000 – enough to get him through one month in L.A. He was lacking in self-confidence. At the Happy Days audition, he waited in the green room with a group of actors he recognized from TV – stiff competition, he figured, for a newcomer like himself. And yet.

“I went in and somehow I was a man of no confidence outside the room but when I would audition I somehow allowed myself the luxury of doing whatever came to my imagination. I also was dyslexic, which I didn’t know at the time, so I couldn’t read off the page. I would memorize as quickly as I could and then I improvised the rest of the audition. Wherever I went, people would say, ‘You’re not doing what’s written.’ I’d say, ‘I’m giving you the essence of the character.’”

At the end of the month, running out of money and planning to return to New York, Winkler got the call. It was his 27th birthday. He went against type, but the part was his. “They wanted a tall Italian,” Winkler says. “They got a short Jew.”

Initially a supporting role, Fonzie became a central character as Happy Days grew into a ratings monster, and Winkler went from obscurity to superstardom – his face plastered on teenagers’ bedroom walls everywhere and on that ubiquitous Fonzie T-shirt.

When I ask what that crazy time was like for him, he says it was “fantastic” – but rather than talk about the dizzying fame and fortune he achieved, he recounts what was going on in his personal life: He met his wife, Stacey (to whom he’s been married for 36 years now), and they began a life together along with her son, then 5. They had two more children, they got a dog.

“There was no show business in the home,” he says. “And when I mentioned before that I had very little sense of self, that was a very important component. Because there was no way that I was going to believe what people were saying to me about who they thought I was, playing the character. So it never actually got in. I had no idea how to relate to what they were saying because I flunked geometry for four years in a row.” It would have been impossible, he explained, for him to have thought of himself as a big deal.

He seems to grasp it now. He loved Happy Days; they were a family, he says, playing charades together, and competing together in softball games on Sundays. He still keeps in touch with some of the cast.

And there is no sense of him looking down upon his sitcom career.

“A lot of people that I went to Yale with, they said [here he begins to play the part of a Serious Stage Actor], ‘I don’t know how you could do a television series. It goes against our aesthetic grain.’ Their next question to me was [that voice again]: ‘How do you get one?’

“I’m telling you that people who I didn’t even talk to at Yale showed up at Stage 19 on the Paramount lot and wanted to know if they could meet [Happy Days creator] Garry Marshall, if they could meet … the casting people. And then I thought: So I’m feeling guilty, I’m thinking maybe I’m not doing the right thing, and all of these people really want the luck I’ve had.”

Beyond Happy Days, there were a number of film roles – ranging from Heroes and Night Shift early on to Adam Sandler comedies such as The Waterboy – and, more recently, a recurring role in Arrested Development as the bumbling lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn. There’s also his British series Hank Zipzer, based on the series of books he has co-written about growing up with dyslexia.

But it’s the Fonz that people still fawn over – here at Banff (the guy can’t move a few centimetres before someone wants to shake his hand or take a photo with him; he always obliges) and, he says, pretty much everywhere he goes.

When I ask him if it’s irritating to constantly have strangers approaching him, he doesn’t quite tell me to sit on it (Winkler would never do that), but he makes it clear he has little time for anyone in his position who would complain about such a thing. “People are great to me. No matter where we go in the world, we are invited into people’s homes for dinner,” he says.

He talks about visiting a First Nations reservation in New Mexico with his children. “A grandmother, when I visited the pueblo, came running out with bread that she had just baked and gave me a loaf, and said, ‘You were respectful to native Americans on Happy Days, and this is my thank you.’ How do you say to that warmth – no? How do you say I have no time? How do you do that? I don’t understand those actors. They are crazy. And they are not telling the truth.”

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