Henry Winkler reveals the mensch behind the Fonz

Henry Winkler played Fonz in the TV show Happy Days.

 HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

‘I love being a Jew,” says Henry Winkler, the actor whose name will forever be linked to the Fonz, his Happy Days television show character.

He was speaking to The Jerusalem Post after giving an hour-long entertaining presentation to students at the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television on Wednesday night.

“I love my job, I love every second of my job, and my family is incredible,” said the 76-year-old mensch-y actor, who became an overnight sensation in the 1970s on the popular sitcom co-starring Ron Howard.

But in spite of his early mega-success and the fact that he has been in the public eye for more than 45 years, Winkler is one of the most stable and hardest-working people in show business and has been married to Stacey Winkler since 1978. She accompanied him on this visit to Israel, the first time here for both of them. The impetus for the trip was the filming of his Israeli television debut in the upcoming Hot series Chanshi.

When it comes to his pride in his Jewish identity, as Fonzie might have said, Winkler does not just talk the talk, he walks the walk. After three young Israeli television creators – Aleeza Chanowitz, Aaron Geva and Mickey Triest, all Sam Spiegel graduates – asked him to appear in Chanshi, he thought it over and decided to take the part.

 HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The series, about a young observant American woman who moves to Israel and finds herself running wild, is based on Chanowitz’s experiences. She has already made two funny, irreverent and occasionally risqué short films in a similar vein, Mushkie and Shabbos Kallah. 

In Chanshi, Winkler plays Chanowitz’s character’s father and Caroline Aaron of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been cast as her mother. In a master class at the film school with Winkler on Wednesday, Chanowitz said, “We made a list of Jewish actors the right age who hadn’t said anything against Israel, and you were at the top.” But Triest noted, “We didn’t think we could get you.”

The audacious film-school grads pursued their idol, and their dreams came true. Soon he was in Jerusalem, filming for three days at a breakneck pace. His hosts are the Foreign Ministry, which is taking him and his wife around the country and arranging meetings and dinners with fellow entertainers, including Fauda’s Lior Raz (“I’m a huge fan,” Winkler said.) Earlier in the day, he lunched with Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino in Tel Aviv, whom he had met only once before briefly at the wedding of mutual friend Adam Sandler. “He was charming and smart and inspired and enthusiastic... I was in heaven.” 

 HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

During Winkler’s PowerPoint presentation for Sam Spiegel students on Wednesday – which these students had prepared for by watching episodes of Happy Days, which went off the air more than a decade before they were born – he radiated good humor, charm and positivity, encouraging them to be proactive as they pursued their dreams. After telling them the saga of how he ended up in the cast of Chanshi, he added, “It’s very important that you know there is hope.”

Asked why it took the native of Manhattan’s Upper West Side who is the son of German-Jewish refugees so long to make it to the Holy Land, he said, “Here’s the truth. I was petrified. I thought I’m going to get off the plane, I’m going to step foot on terra firma Israel [and] a war will break out at that moment. Irrational? Maybe. Meshuggeh? Maybe. But it was powerful and palpable and then I got the script and I thought, ‘Well, no, I’m not ready yet.’ And then the government said, ‘We’re going to show you Israel and you’ll do the show.’ And I said to myself, from one minute of ‘No,’ to ‘If not now, when?’ And here I am.”

Clearly, this was a case of better late than never. Speaking in our interview about whether he found being in Israel was not as scary as he had feared, he said, “That was only my craziness.” He was enthusiastic about the food and the friendliness he encountered in Israel, noting, “I love it that Israelis are so feisty... people are so direct and it knocks you to the floor.” 

While the conditions on an Israeli set were not as luxurious as on an American production, he said the Israeli crew was “incredibly professional... no different” from their US counterparts.

 HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) HENRY WINKLER at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

ALTHOUGH MANY will always see him as the Fonz, Winkler has had a stellar post-Happy Days career, recently appearing in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. He has also starred in many movies, including Sandler comedies such as You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and the television series Royal Pains and Arrested Development, among many others. He has also produced many projects. 

He won his first Emmy at the age of 72 for playing the acting teacher to a hit man portrayed by Bill Hader in the HBO series Barry. Winkler is also a prolific author, penning a book about fly-fishing and also a bestselling series of books for children about a boy with dyslexia, the Hank Zipzer series, inspired by his own challenges with dyslexia.

Sam Spiegel has been inviting international luminaries to speak for years both at the film school and their long-running and very successful Jerusalem International Film Lab, in which projects such as the Oscar-winning Hungarian film Son of Saul were developed. It’s fitting that this year they hosted TV star Winkler, since they just started a lab for television projects. 

Asked how he has stayed so down to earth in spite of his decades of fame, he said, “You either learn to deal with it, or are destroyed by it.” Clearly, the haimish actor, who spoke with pride about his work ethic and his six grandchildren, learned to deal with it early on. 

In response to a question about whether he planned to keep working, he said, “Absolutely. That word [retirement] is treyf to me.”

Winkler has a little time left in Israel and will attend a screening of the Sandler comedy The Waterboy, in which he costarred, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Saturday night and do a Q & A there.

Asked about other plans for his last days in Jerusalem, he said, “I have 20 prayers that I’m going to put in the old wall [the Kotel].... I know as soon as I put them in, God will see them.” Given Winkler’s big heart, it seems likely that these messages will go swiftly from his hand to God’s ear.