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Henry Winkler on the Fonz, Robin Williams and Cleveland eats

Henry Winkler with his Best Supporting Actor Critics' Choice Award earlier this year. The 77-year-old star will be in Cleveland to discuss his new book, "Being Henry," on November 9.
Joe Seer
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Henry Winkler with his Best Supporting Actor Critics' Choice Award earlier this year. The 78-year-old star will be in Cleveland to discuss his new book, "Being Henry," on Nov. 9.

The man who brought Arthur Fonzarelli, Gene Cousineau and Chuck Lumley to life has written about his own life in the new book “Being Henry: The Fonz… and Beyond.” Seamlessly moving from his personal life to his career and back again, Winkler’s anecdotes cover his difficult childhood, struggles with dyslexia, fairytale romance and career challenges - both before and after his biggest hit, the classic ‘70s sitcom “Happy Days.”

“I did the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ on a Friday night,” he said. “Monday, I met another casting person, and she said, ‘Ohhhhh, you're Henry Winkler.’”

His arrival in Los Angeles from New York quickly led to his iconic TV role. The 78-year-old star recalls being driven by a dybbuk, the Jewish mythological version of being possessed by a spirit.

“My father did not want me to be an actor. My mother did not want me to be an actor,” he said. “They wanted me to take over the family business. I got off the plane with my bags. I went to Joan Scott's office. I swear to you, this is how disconnected I was: I thought she was sending me on an audition right then and there. She said, ‘Don't you want to get a place to live first?’ I said no, I don't.”

From one camera to three

“Happy Days” was moderately successful in its first season, but ratings nosedived in year two against “Good Times.” That’s when producer Garry Marshall decided to add a live studio audience – a change which had greatly improved his previous show, “The Odd Couple.”

“Ron Howard was at our table two weeks ago,” he said. “He said, ‘You know, you were so good.’ I said, ‘It took you 50 years to tell me this?’ Ron never had acted in front of a live audience before - like a duck to water. He was smooth as silk. Astounding.”

In the book, he recalls their chemistry and how Howard, despite being 10 years younger, counseled Winkler on several occasions.

“I, being an intense New York actor, couldn't do a joke,” he said. “So, I started pounding the script. He put his arm around me, walked me to the back of the soundstage and said, ‘You know, the writers are working as hard as they can, and I don't think we should hit the script.’ And I haven’t.”

Some of the most famous “Happy Days” episodes saw the Fonz squaring off against Mork from Ork, an alien played by Robin Williams.

“We went to see him live after he was on the show,” he said. “This is where I learned to shut up. I said to him, ‘Doing a sitcom of your own is so tough. I would not perform at night; you gotta save your energy.’ Now here is a man who's got more energy than 15 people. His whole life was stand-up, and I'm telling him, ‘I would give that up for now.’ What an idiot!”

'But he was the Fonz...'

After “Happy Days” ended in 1984, Winkler’s career entered a transitional period. Aside from some voice work, he found it difficult to land acting roles.

“Everybody said, ‘What a lovely guy, he is so talented, very funny - but he was the Fonz,’” he said. “That's why I became a producer. And then the first show that we sold to ABC was ‘MacGyver.’”

The show ran for seven seasons, but they proved trying for Winkler. His producing partner, John Rich, was the award-winning director of “Our Miss Brooks,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “All in the Family.”

“From the bottom of my soul, he might have been the worst human being I've ever met,” he said. “Dismissive. Disrespectful. He would level anybody and everybody on our crew. And I would say, ‘What he really meant was that you're doing a great job, and we really appreciate you.’”

Throughout the book, Winkler pulls no punches discussing his interactions with Rich, his parents and even Burt Reynolds over a career spanning six decades. Looking back, he recalls a few projects which never came to fruition.

“I was approached… to make an album,” he said. “I said, ‘I can't sing.’ They said, ‘It's okay, we'll take one note, get it right, we'll take the next note, get it right, and we'll splice it together.’ I said, ‘I can't do that. That would be a lie.’ I would be like Milli Vanilli!”

Looking ahead, Winkler said he is in talks to host an interview show for PBS alongside Misty Copeland and Connie Chung, under the heading “Artists Talking to Artists.” He’ll also be in Cleveland on November 9, speaking at the Maltz Performing Arts Center, when he might be dining at a couple of spots he’s enjoyed in the past: Slyman’s and Little Italy.

“It's like an old school, family-owned place,” he said. “The chef came to sit at the table. So delicious!”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.