Henry Winkler Dishes on ‘Happy Days’ Drama, Dinner With Bette Davis
Henry Winkler is one of those TV icons whose name immediately inspires warmth. Best known for decades as Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, the actor has since made his mark across all corners of pop culture—voice acting, horror, and, most recently, HBO’s prestigious black comedy Barry, which earned him his first Primetime Emmy more than four decades after his first nomination.
In his new memoir, Being Henry, which hits shelves Tuesday, Winkler sheds light on the personal struggles and insecurities that have long animated his most captivating characters. He discusses his fraught relationship with his parents: Jewish refugees from Germany who treated him harshly and whose adoration only seemed to blossom after his fame. He meditates on how decades of undiagnosed dyslexia warped his self-image, and how he’s learned to better connect with both himself and his wife of four decades, Stacey Weitzman, through hard work in therapy.
In quieter moments, Winkler also explores the life he’s built with his family—like his deep love for their many, many dogs, and the rose garden that he and his wife insisted Andy Garcia keep when he bought their house. At times, Weitzman offers counterpoints to Winkler’s narration—a fun, Nora Ephron-like twist that brings even more fascinating nuance to crucial points in their lives together.
More than anything, Being Henry is the story of a talented actor who, as his wife puts it, can “charm the pants” off of anyone—even when he shows up to an audition with huge pit stains. It’s about the struggle to come into oneself after decades of self-alienation, and about perseverance. As Winkler put it in his Emmy acceptance speech, “If you stay at the table long enough, the chips come to you.”
Below, see some of the memoir’s best and biggest revelations.
Winkler struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia until he was 31.
As Winkler writes, his parents immigrated from Germany in 1939, “just under the wire” to escape. Winkler’s father, Harry, lied to both the government and his wife, claiming their family needed to leave for six weeks on business. (That was just one of Harry’s many lies, his son writes—and it was also his “most benign.”) Winkler’s parents never returned, and the Nazis killed both of their families.
From a young age, Winkler struggled with reading and recalls that his parents nicknamed him “dummer Hund” (German for dumb dog). He wouldn’t find out he was severely dyslexic until the age of 31, and his relationship with both his parents would remain fraught until their deaths. The actor also wonders (with no resolution) whether his father’s prolonged “work” absences might’ve hinted at an affair or secret family.
It wasn’t until his son received his dyslexia diagnosis that Winkler realized the reason he, too, had struggled with certain tasks throughout his life.
“When I found out that I had something with a name, that I was not just a stupid and dumb dog, I was so fucking angry,” Winkler writes. “All the misery I’d gone through had been for nothing. All the yelling, all the humiliation, all the screaming arguments in my house as I was growing up—for nothing.”
It was Winkler’s struggles with dyslexia that inspired his book series Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever, co-authored with Lin Oliver.
“Some of the peak moments in my life have come from writing those books with Lin,” Winkler writes, “something I never thought I could do in the first place.”
Playing The Fonz was a blessing—and then a curse.
Winkler broke out as Arthur Fonzarelli on Happy Days, skyrocketing to such fame that network executives floated the idea of a spinoff, or even renaming the show Fonzie’s Happy Days. The latter idea worried Winkler (who begged them not to, for fear it would feel like a “slap in the face” to his co-stars) and understandably upset the show’s intended lead, Ron Howard—who confided in his friend that although he never bore a personal grudge against him, the dynamic with ABC was nonetheless upsetting.
Howard’s frustration came from more than just that idea: As Winkler notes, the network treated them differently in smaller ways as well, like giving him a cutting-edge VCR as a holiday gift during the show’s third season while the rest of the cast got wallets. “Ron called ABC corporate and gave both barrels to the first person he talked to,” Winkler writes “… And he sent back his wallet.”
When Howard finally left Happy Days to pursue directing full time, Winkler recalls that Howard told him, “ABC just really doesn’t care about me.” As he puts it, “Both directly and indirectly, ABC’s rudeness turned Ron Howard into a billion-dollar director and a major player in the movie business.”
For Winkler, the curse of Fonzie began when he, too, began pursuing work outside of Happy Days—and found, for a while at least, that no one seemed to have anything new for him, because all they wanted was The Fonz again.
Winkler’s stepson once got a more exclusive White House invitation than even he could secure.
Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis met Winkler’s stepson Jed during a fundraiser on the actor’s family’s lawn. Apparently, she thought Jed was “such a personable young fellow that he should have the experience of spending the weekend with America’s chief executive.” Casual!
As Winkler recalls, he his wife have dined with the odd president before, “but we have never slept over at the Western White House. Jed did. Patti took him there when she went to visit her parents. And at the end of the weekend, Jed came home with stories about his new friends, Ron and Nancy.”
No, Winkler does not have any beef with John Travolta.
Although some have tried to “cobble up some rivalry” between John Travolta and Winkler, who passed on the chance to play Danny Zuko in Grease before Travolta took the role, Winkler writes that that’s always been “baloney.”
“I don’t know John well,” he writes, “but he has never been anything but warm and wonderful with me. He has done very well, and zei gezunt—he should live and be healthy.”
Bette Davis once asked Winkler to dinner and got her cigarette ashes all over his living room.
While Winkler was still on Happy Days, he reports that the Old Hollywood icon Bette Davis once reached out to say she wanted to take him to dinner. Rather than meet up at the restaurant, however, Davis apparently opted to meet him at his home—where, he points out, there was an ashtray that went ignored.
“The ashes just went wherever they went,” Winkler writes. “And I thought, You know what? It’s Bette Davis. That’s the way it is.”
Once the two went to dinner, Winkler says, Davis made up for how self-conscious and awkward he was feeling. (Who among us?) As he recalls, “she kept the conversation flowing; she was lovely. And her cigarette ashes, being Bette Davis’s cigarette ashes, went wherever the hell Bette Davis felt like putting them.”
Later on, Winkler would share a strange meal experience with another Hollywood legend—Christopher Walken.
While the two worked together on Adam Sandler’s Click, Winkler recalls that he and Walken went out to a restaurant in Bakersfield one night after work. After he’d ordered, he looked over to Walken—who seemed frozen with “an alarmed expression” on his face, apparently “in the midst of some sort of existential crisis.”
Winkler wound up essentially ordering for Walken, who got fish and succotash in the end, after Winkler dragged it out of him by guessing through some options—chicken? Potatoes?
“Let me just tell you,” Winkler writes, “that ordering dinner for Christopher Walken was a rare and delightful experience.”
Production executives wouldn’t put Winkler’s name on Scream and then asked him to do press anyway.
Winkler jumped at the chance to join Wes Craven’s horror classic and had a blast filming his bit part. Eventually, however, a production executive decided that neither his name nor his face could be on the poster for fear that “The Fonz” would overshadow everything and “knock the balance of the horror off.”
What could those executives do, though, when Winkler became a fan-favorite character in all of their screenings? It was time to eat their words and ask Winkler to do promotion.
“I extended my middle finger in the privacy in my own home,” Winkler writes, “and then I went out and did press for Scream. … The moral of the story? Keep working.”
Winkler was “delighted” to join Arrested Development.
Although the initial plan had been to feature Winkler’s character for only an episode or two, he wound up sticking around for five years—in no small part because of the talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Jason Bateman was “a lot like his character,” Winkler recalls—“the keeper of all logic on the show.” Will Arnett and Tony Hale became close in real life, as did most of the cast. Winkler recalls getting along “like bread and butter” with Jessica Walter, although he notes that “there was sometimes static with the rest of the cast.”
As Winkler recalls, Walter “could literally be looking at her make-up in a mirror while the director was calling Action. And Jeff Tambor would remind her, ‘Jessica, we’re acting here! They just said ‘Action!’’”
In those moments, Winkler writes, Walter “would calmly put down her mirror and do the scene brilliantly.” He does not mention the sexual misconduct allegations that later emerged against Tambor, or the actor’s alleged “blowup” at Walter.
Winkler “never understood the jokes” on Children’s Hospital but admired the talent behind it.
It took very little convincing to get Winkler on board to play hospital administrator Sy Mittleman on the Adult Swim series, which aired its 15-minute episodes at midnight. In fact, he said “yes” without hearing anything about the character. He wound up sticking around for five seasons.
Although Winkler has not often admitted it, he writes, “I never understood the jokes. Any of them. All I understood was that the cast was exceptional.”
In particular, Winkler praises Megan Mullally, writing that she was so funny that sometimes during their shared scenes, he “just stood in amazement at how spontaneous she was.”
Winkler credits Amy Poehler for his longevity on Parks and Recreation.
Much like with Children’s Hospital, Winkler was supposed to appear on Michael Schur’s NBC comedy for only an episode or two—but once again, he stuck around for a few years instead.
“I never truly felt that I understood who my character was, but I guess something I did at the beginning was funny, because, to my surprise and delight, they kept bringing me back,” Winkler writes. “I’m sure Amy Poehler was in on this decision. Because when I did scenes with her, I could see that she was completely in charge: It was really her show.”
Winkler goes on to note that in addition to acting, Poehler would also direct and “crack amazingly funny jokes. She truly was the commander in chief.”
Winkler’s first Primetime Emmy win in 2018 felt like “sweet redemption.”
Winkler’s work in Happy Days earned him three consecutive primetime Emmy nominations from 1976 to 1978, but he never won. So when he finally took the stage to collect a gold statuette for playing Gene Cousineau on Barry, Winkler writes that the victory was even more special.
“When you have the kind of success I had right out of the gate,” he writes, “it’s very hard to think that it might never come again. And so this Emmy win was a validation, not only of the work I could do, but of the kind of work I could do at seventy-two. … People who do great work don’t always get rewarded for it. But may I just say, this felt like sweet redemption.”
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