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I went to shake Fonzie’s hand, but Henry went in for the hug

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Henry Winkler at the 2018 Iola Car Show. Photos by author, unless otherwise noted.

As a young boy growing up in 1970s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had two heroes, and both happened to ride motorcycles: Evel Knievel and Arthur Fonzarelli. Only one didn’t really ride motorcycles — he was just a great actor that convinced us all he could.

In fact, it was painfully difficult for Henry Winkler to roar up on that Triumph in his iconic role as Fonzie in TV’s Happy Days.

“Riding a motorcycle — I had to study for that role,” the 72-year-old Winkler told me.

He has dealt with dyslexia throughout his life, and it turns out the physical synchronization of clutch, throttle, shifter, and brakes was the kind of thing those with the condition find hard to do. He managed to ride about 15 feet at a time for short takes for the show.

The other irony is that, though his legendary alter-ego once made a living turning a wrench at Bronco’s Garage in 1950s Milwaukee, Winkler is about the last guy you’d expect to see at the Iola Car Show in Wisconsin.

“I am not a car guy. I want to press the start button and I want that car to run until I need it to,” he said. “If it doesn’t, I want to beat it with a baseball bat! However, after attending more of these car shows I have become extraordinarily impressed with the level of artistry in these cars and have come to appreciate the creativity at work.”

When I asked him what his favorite car was, he offered up the most un-Fonzie answer possible: “I like the Lexus RX SUV. I had one for about six or seven years.” His first car was only slightly more interesting: a two-door, Forest Green 1966 Oldsmobile Cutlass.

Fans young and old still flock to see actor Henry Winkler.

Nonetheless, people still line up to see the man who played the leather-clad tough guy with a heart of gold. But they also line up to see the man who played a morgue attendant in the movie Night Shift, met elephants in the celebrity travel show Better Late Than Never, played a bumbling lawyer in the cult TV comedy Arrested Development, and co-authored 30 children’s books in the Hank Zipzer series.

It’s that last project which he has often said he is most proud of, designed to offer support for young kids dealing with dyslexia. “The books are about a resourceful, funny kid whose glass is half-full — he just spills it everywhere,” Winkler said. “I tell every child I meet: ‘How you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.’”

Winkler is also enjoying his role as a “meanie” acting teacher on HBO’s Barry with Bill Hader and Alec Berg. “These guys are really brilliant. Bill Hader is a cinephile. He has seen every movie ever made.” Winkler awoke the next day, after we spoke at a rural Wisconsin bed and breakfast, to learn both he and the show have garnered an Emmy nomination — his first in more than 40 years.

The nomination is testimony to his acting skill and the deliciously funny character of Gene Cousineau, but perhaps also a dividend paid from the karma bank in which Mr. Winkler seems to make so many heartfelt deposits.

Being a celebrity cannot be easy, but Winkler seems to humbly relish and appreciate the overwhelming wave of goodwill that greets him everywhere he goes. “Every day is like my birthday,” he said.

I watched as thousands lined up to shake his hand, take a picture, or get an autograph at the three-day car show. He doesn’t sit behind a table keeping the crowd at bay, but rather stands in front of it; warmly placing his hand on each person’s arm or around a shoulder as if inviting them into his living room.

Henry Winkler and the 1952 Triumph motorcycle he appeared with in Happy Days at the Iola Car Show.

He locks eyes with each person, saying “It’s been a real pleasure to meet you,” or “Be well.” He takes special interest in children and babies, cooing their names to them. He did this for three eight-hour days in humid 85-degree weather, and I never saw him take a break.

The constant stream of admirers allowed me time to chat with his wife of 40 years, Stacey Winkler. A woman in line asked Stacey if it would be alright to give Henry a kiss on the check for a photo. Stacey obliged, turned to me and said, “Now, wasn’t that polite of her to ask!”

Certainly all fan encounters can’t be so polite? “They really are. Henry really cares about people, and there is something about the character he played that people respect. He (Fonzie) treated everyone equally and justly. On the show, conflict was solved peacefully – never with violence.”

“Now people do and say things publicly that would have never been acceptable in the past. People are so angry at one another. So polarized.”

The last time we saw Henry Winkler don the brown leather jacket was for a Get Out the Vote commercial back in 2008. “It was Ron Howard’s idea. He called me up, and I said ‘I’ll do it if you do.’ I remember we were sitting in the makeup trailer, talking about our kids while getting into costume. We hadn’t played these characters in decades. We went out on the set and I leaned against that 1950s car, and I instantly zoomed back 30 years.”

How did he develop the character of The Fonz? “It was all about the voice. Once I found The Fonz’s voice, the rest fell in place. The character is based on everyone that I wanted to be but I wasn’t. Someone in control. Someone attractive to women. The leader of the pack,” said Winkler.

Henry Winkler’s struggles with dyslexia made it difficult to ride motorcycles. Photo courtesy Bonhams Auctions.

Happy Days projected that character over the airwaves, piercing the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain and beyond with idyllic images of 1950s America, inspiring countless immigrants with dreams of a better life.

It’s fitting that the son of German immigrants fleeing the Nazis became the character who acted as a beacon for the American Promise and the values of a free and fair nation. People call out “Hey Fonzie,” incapable or unwilling to separate the role from the shy young man whose own American journey transformed him into a global pop deity more than forty years ago.

Fortunately, as much as Henry is the polar-opposite of the man in brown leather outwardly, he is one-hundred-percent Fonzarelli in his compassion and kindness.

But the 1970s kid in me still needed to hear something more from The Fonz. I needed to know that somewhere, perhaps lying in wait, was the world’s coolest greaser. The man who stood up to the bullies for the little guy. The man with an unshakeable moral compass, who could break down our problems into 30-minute manageable chunks. The man who would enter the room to everyone’s applause and dispense justice in front of a live studio audience. The man who was perhaps the last thing America could truly agree on.

My inner ’70s-child asked, “Is Fonzie dead?”

“Fonzie is not dead,” Henry reassured me. “Nor will he ever be.”

Then he slipped briefly back into character, and suddenly I heard The Voice; letting me know that it was all still there, just beneath the surface.