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Television Henry Winkler, television’s most sweetly complicated man – and the happiest guy in the room

Sarah Goldberg and Henry Winkler, as Gene, in HBO series Barry.

It’s midmorning on an unusually chilly day in Beverly Hills. A small group of journalists are in a room waiting. The muttered talk is of travel woes, cancelled flights, luggage issues and traffic. It’s very subdued.

The door opens, in strides Henry Winkler – this sweet and complicated man – and brings happiness and warmth with him. He’s beaming, shakes hands with each of us, remembers that he met one of us before and compliments a young woman on her leather jacket. She blushes and you know what she’s thinking: “The Fonz just told me my leather jacket is cool.”

Winkler is beaming, he admits, because at 73 he’s a long way from Fonz on Happy Days and enjoying a late renaissance, doing serious, acclaimed work. He’s here to talk about the HBO series Barry, for which he won his first Emmy – for outstanding supporting actor – last fall. In it he plays Gene, an acting teacher who has a scoundrel side to him. You’re meant to wonder if this guy knows anything at all about acting. Maybe that’s why the character Barry (played by Bill Hader, who co-created the series), a morose hit man by trade, decides he can change his life by becoming an actor through Gene’s teaching. On the show – a must-see and available on Crave/HBO on-demand – the intermingling of a mobster world and that of struggling actors is beautifully, subtly funny-poignant.

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The Emmy he won and his charming, short but still rambling acceptance speech is the ice-breaker topic. He’d been nominated five times previously. “I sat in that seat so many times for that award, and never had to jump out of my seat,” he says, relishing the memory. “Then I hear my name and I’m going down the steps and I see two actors from The Crown. My wife and I had just finished watching it so I stopped to pass on my compliments. Before I knew it, I was at the podium with only 37 seconds to speak. The teleprompter was already telling me to wind up my remarks when I got there.”

Rightor Doyle, left, Henry Winkler, right, and Bill Hader.

He relishes it all for two reasons. First, he points out, “There are actors my age sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. Some just hide the phone in the closet because it’s all too painful. Me, I’m sitting here talking to you about this great show!”

A theme of Barry is the idea that a person can change their life, habits and even their very nature, as the central character aims to do by embracing theatre and the acting craft. Winkler says the second season will drill deeper into this theme and be darker in tone while remaining funny in a sinister way. (Further plot details are embargoed.) He’s asked, can this change actually happen through art and acting? “As a 73-year-old man I believe it’s possible to change your nature about 200 degrees, but you have to work on it, do it as if you’re ripping away some part of your body. It’s like getting to grips with the physical part of acting.”

Winkler’s own acting career has been a series of erratic turns. As a child, his dyslexia held him back at school (it wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his 30s), he struggled to graduate from high school and eventually got a BA from Emerson College. The acting bug bit him hard and theatre was his passion. For all of the difficulties that dyslexia brought, theatre was his home and comfort zone. He got into the Yale School of Drama and earned an MFA there.

Winkler turns to the topic of Yale with zest. The second reason for relishing things now is the acclaim for serious work. At the height of his mid-seventies fame on Happy Days, he says, the head of the Yale drama program was asked about this now-famous alumnus. According to Winkler, the man said he “couldn’t applaud Winkler’s work.” He meant that TV show. Winkler mimics the sneer intended in the remark, but he doesn’t seem angry. “The next week, as it happened, I got a fundraising letter from Yale and, you know what, I just couldn’t find my cheque book!”

He didn’t disappear after the Fonz literally “jumped the shark” on Happy Days and the show was eventually cancelled. He produced, directed and did guest-star roles. He also became an advocate for the understanding of dyslexia. With co-author Lin Oliver he’s written 19 children’s books, which features Hank Zipzer, a young dyslexic protagonist. He has toured schools in the United States and the United Kingdom talking about the disability. (Being an old-school man of the theatre, he also took on several stage roles in traditional English pantomimes over there.) In 2011 he was conferred with an honorary OBE, by the Queen, for his work with children.

He doesn’t want to talk about it much. “Aw, I’m lucky I get to do this work with the kids,” he says, his arms gesticulating wildly as if to distract attention from the matter.

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Instead he goes into an imitation of Bill Hader watching rehearsals for Barry. He shows us how Hader mouths the lines spoken by other actors as he watches. He’s joshing but at the same time he isn’t – it’s the skills in writing, rehearsing and acting that obsess Winkler.

He keeps backing away from seriousness, actually, although he began as an actor doing Shakespeare and Brecht. That backing away is the complicated part of him, but sweet in its self-deprecation and modesty. Asked if the eccentric Gene character he plays is a wild exaggeration or a conflation of dubious acting coaches he has known, he begins by answering that he’s pretty sure some of the acting master classes he’s given on performing Shakespeare have gone awry thanks to his own wild enthusiasm. Then he changes course, as if talking about giving theatre master classes, like talking about Yale or an OBE, is pretentious.

“Oh, that Gene guy,” he says laughing ruefully. “I’ve had actors come up to me and say. “I know that guy, I know him!””

Then he switches back to explaining how lucky he is. “You know what? Since Barry aired, they put me on a plane to Paris and I took a very nice two-hour train ride to this part of France. There, I worked on this movie Wes Anderson is making. Wes Anderson! And Tilda Swinton is in it. I worked with her. Benicio Del Toro. Frances McDormand.” He pauses for effect. “Tilda Swinton!” he repeats. “It was cold there by the way, my feet were attached to hot water bottles the whole time. Then I took that nice train ride back to Paris. This all happened!”

Eventually he stands to leave, shakes hands again. Unlike every other male in the TV industry we’ll meet that day, Winkler is not dressed in the LA showbiz uniform of skinny jeans and designer hoodie. He’s wearing slacks, a shirt and tie, and a blazer that is far from cool. And he’s got one last nugget for us, apparel-related. He puts a leg in the air to point to the sneakers he’s wearing, the only fashionable items in his outfit.

“I got these as a gift for working on Barry. We all did. The slogan for this shoe is, ‘Walking happy.’ They’re right. I’m walking around happy.”

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True that. And he left the room happier than he found it.

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