After Winkler graduated with an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama in 1970, one of his earliest roles was as the cool, leather-jacket-wearing Fonz on the classic sitcom Happy Days, which ran from 1974 until 1984.
It was an iconic role — but the typecasting was tough to shake: "It took me maybe eight years after the Fonz to really get a good acting role," Winkler says.
Eventually, Winkler was able to move on. He appeared for decades in movies and TV shows, including recurring comic roles in Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development. In 2018, he won a best supporting actor Emmy for his role on the HBO series Barry.
On Barry, Winkler plays a self-important acting teacher to a hitman played by Bill Hader. Winkler draws on his own experiences — both as an actor and a teacher — for the role.
"A lot of acting teachers, they talk about breaking bad habits, they talk about breaking you down, and I totally get that," he says. "But I've taught four classes in my life and I think you can get an actor to move off their position without making them feel like poop from a whale at the bottom of the ocean."
On doing commercials early in his career
Sanka coffee, which was a decaffeinated coffee. American Airlines. H&R Block taxes. Gleem toothpaste, which is the whitening toothpaste. At the time, I had really nice teeth. Like that, and on and on, I got great at getting commercials and I didn't have to do another job to make ends meet. I made my living and I could do plays for free at the Manhattan Theatre Club at night. ...
Everybody I went to Yale with said, "I don't know how you can do commercials; we are trained for theater." Except that the money I made from commercials allowed me to go to California for a month and be able to survive, and within two weeks I got Happy Days.
On learning he had dyslexia at age 31
[I found out] after my stepson was tested, because he was so verbal, and he is so smart, but he couldn't do reports. He couldn't write. He couldn't organize his thoughts. And when we had him tested, everything that they said about Jed was true about me, and I realized ... "I actually have something with a name." ...
The first thing, I got very angry, because all of the arguments in my house with the short Germans — who were my parents — were for naught. All of the grounding was for naught. Like, I couldn't go to the dance on Friday night because ... my grades were horrible. ... I now understand, possibly, if I didn't fight through my dyslexia I would not be sitting at this microphone chatting with you. ...
The reading is still difficult for me. When we did Happy Days, I embarrassed myself for 10 years reading around that table with the producers, the other actors, the director, all of the department heads. On Monday morning, we read the scripts. I stumbled over every word. I was completely embarrassed.
On his dyslexia now
We're sitting around the table and sometimes people who sit next to me have to point out that I have dropped a line, that I just missed it on the page, and I'm sitting there thinking, "Oh my God! I wonder whose line it is?" There's a big silence here. It turns out it's me! I'm still embarrassed. And not only that, but also I want to be perfect, and I hate when I miss the timing, or I screw another actor's timing up because I have screwed the line up so badly, or I have to go back again. Ugh, I hate it. Sometimes I just — I hate my brain.
On his family leaving Germany during World War II
My father knew that it was time. He got a six-week visa from Germany to come and do work in New York but was expected to come right back. ... He took his mother's jewelry, bought a box of chocolate, melted the chocolate down, put the pieces of jewelry in the chocolate box, poured the chocolate over the jewelry [and] put the box under his arm. So when he was stopped by the Nazis, and they said, "Are you taking anything of value out of Germany? Now you can open every bag?" — we've got nothing.
The jewelry that he encased in chocolate he sold when he came out of Ellis Island into New York, and was able to start a new life here, slowly but surely. I have the actual letters from the government each time my father requested to stay a little longer, and they would say yes. And I was born, and thank God, because I love our country.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
In a previous version of this story, the toothpaste Gleem was incorrectly spelled Gleam.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Henry Winkler accepted his Emmy Award last September for his performance in the HBO dark comedy series "Barry," he said...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HENRY WINKLER: I only have 37 seconds. I wrote this 43 years ago.
WINKLER: (Laughter) OK.
GROSS: The 43 years ago is a reference to when he became known for his role on "Happy Days" as Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, aka Fonzie, aka The Fonz, a network-sitcom version of a cool guy with slicked back hair, a motorcycle and a leather jacket, who could attract girls with a snap of his fingers. Since then he's been in movies and TV shows, including recurring roles in "Parks And Recreation" and "Arrested Development."
In "Barry" - which is now in its second season and just got renewed for a third - Winkler plays Gene Cousineau, a self-important acting teacher who sees himself as a wise, experienced mentor. One of his students, Barry, is played by Bill Hader, an alum of "Saturday Night Live" who co-created the series.
Gene tries to get his students to draw on their emotional truths, but Barry is hiding his truth. He's a veteran who fought in Afghanistan and, after returning home, used the skills he learned to become a hit man. He first came to the acting class on assignment to kill one of the students. Someone else ended up taking care of that. But Barry becomes increasingly drawn to acting and wants to stay in the class and change his life.
Here's a scene from last Sunday's episode. Gene is having his students tell their own stories for a show he's putting together. Barry reluctantly reveals a little about himself and tells the story of the first time he shot and killed someone in Afghanistan. Gene is so moved by Barry's story and so unaware of what Barry is still hiding, he tries to convince Barry to tell the Afghanistan story onstage. But Barry tries to get out of having to do it.
Here's Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau and Bill Hader as Barry.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")
BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Mr. Cousineau, I don't really have to tell the story I told yesterday in front of an audience, do I?
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Of course not.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Good. Thank you.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) No. That version is just the beginning. See, during rehearsal - and this is just my instinct - you're going to find more complicated, [expletive] up details. Those, we have to hear.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Right. But, you know, you said that this is a story that has to define us, and I just - I don't think that's the person that I am.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Barry, you're justifiably nervous.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) But I will not hear a word about switching it out one iota for something less compelling. You, sir, are doing Afghanistan.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) See, I wanted to do the story about meeting you.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Go on.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah. You know, being in this class, and seeing you teach and...
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) So you want to tell the story of meeting me?
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I'll allow it.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Good. That's great. That's great. I think it'll be way better than Afghanistan.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I can be as involved as you need me to be in order to craft this piece, or I can stay on the sidelines. I totally understand. Either way is fine.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) OK. I don't think I need...
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) But who would know more about me than me?
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) That's a good point, but I don't think you need to be involved at all. You know? I was there. I remember.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I have scrapbooks.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Cool.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) If you need 'em.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Hmm.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I've got diaries. I've got pictures. I've got tapes. Barry, I have got a lot of tapes.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I think I'm good, Mr. Cousineau. Thank you.
GROSS: (Laughter). Henry Winkler, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're terrific in this role. I'm so glad to have you on our show.
WINKLER: Thank you.
GROSS: So your character, Gene, is so intent on getting truthful performances from the students and have them dig deep into their souls. But he's also so narcissistic and wrapped up in the mystique he's tried to create around himself in this little class. This must have made you think a lot about some of the best and worst acting teachers you had now that you're playing an acting teacher. Have you kind of gone back to look at your past and your acting teachers?
WINKLER: I have. I've had about 14 teachers, from Emerson College to Yale Drama School, just in between those seven years. And what was amazing is that some of them were inspirational. Some of them were mean. Some of them lost their way. And some of them had nothing to say.
GROSS: What is one of the worst acting exercises you were obligated to do when you were a student?
WINKLER: I did an exercise with one of my favorite teachers. His name was Bobby Lewis. He was a member of the Group Theatre. Bobby Lewis had us pick a painting, pick a character in the painting, get some element of clothing that represented that character, take the pose, step out of the pose and create who you thought that person was.
I am so dyslexic. I got my piece of costume. I struck my pose. I stood there. And he said, is there any reason you are mirror opposite to what is in the painting? I said, no, I'm not. There's no reason at all.
And I just turned around and immediately struck the pose in the other direction. And he started to cry. He said, you're making a mockery of my work. And I had no idea what he was talking about.
GROSS: Wow. That seems really harsh.
WINKLER: Except that he was the man - to be honest, most of what I know, most of what I use in my well of education comes from the great Bobby Lewis.
GROSS: So do you attribute this, like, mirror reverse thing that you were doing to the dyslexia?
WINKLER: I do. I had no idea. And I, of course, had no sense of self at that time. I was an unrefrigerated bowl of Jello just before it congeals. I just thought, well, that's it. My career is over. My - they're going to kick me out of school.
GROSS: So is that an example of bad teaching, when you kind of ruin somebody's - when you lower somebody's self-esteem even lower than it already was? Is that - (laughter) - is that helpful?
WINKLER: You know what? I think a lot of acting teachers, they talk about breaking bad habits. They talk about breaking you down. And I totally get that. But I have also - I've taught four classes in my life. And I think you can get an actor to move off their position or her position without making them feel like poop from a whale at the bottom of the ocean.
GROSS: And by the way, you didn't know you had dyslexia at the time.
WINKLER: I did not until I was 31.
GROSS: And you found out at the age of 31 because...
WINKLER: Yes, after my stepson was tested. Because he was so verbal, and he is so smart, but he couldn't do reports. He couldn't write. He couldn't organize his thoughts. And when we had him tested, everything that they said about Jed was true about me. And I realized, I'm not a stupid dog. I actually have something with a name.
GROSS: How was that helpful, to have a diagnosis?
WINKLER: The first thing? I got very angry. Because all of the arguments in my house with the short Germans who were my parents were for naught. All of the grounding was for naught. Then I...
GROSS: You mean punishment grounded. Like, you're grounded?
WINKLER: Yes. Like, I couldn't go to the dance on Friday night.
GROSS: Because your grades weren't good?
WINKLER: Couldn't watch - my grades were horrible. I am in the bottom 3 percent, academically, in America. That is calculated. And then I went from all of that anger to I now understand, possibly, if I didn't fight through my dyslexia, I would not be sitting at this microphone chatting with you.
GROSS: Right. So you really had to work hard to work through the dyslexia so you could learn your parts. I mean, if reading is hard, how are you going to memorize a part?
WINKLER: Well, memorizing is different from the reading. The reading is still difficult for me. When we did "Happy Days," I embarrassed myself for 10 years reading around that table with the producers, the other actors, the director, all of the department heads. On Monday morning, we read the scripts. I stumbled over every word. I was completely embarrassed. Memorizing, if it's written well, my brain is then able to suck it up like a vacuum cleaner.
GROSS: I want to play another scene from "Barry." This is from the first season.
GROSS: And you, the acting teacher, has just found out that one of your students has been murdered.
GROSS: This happens to be the person that Barry - who is a hit man - and a student in your class - he came to your class because he was assigned to murder this guy, but the guy was already murdered by the time Barry got there. Nevertheless, it's weighing heavy on his soul (laughter).
GROSS: So this is you talking to the class right...
GROSS: ...After you found out that your student, Ryan, has been murdered. And you're telling the students about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Focus. Focus. Now, I wish I could say that this was the first time that one of my students was gunned down in the street, but it's not. And as much as it pains me to say it, it is most likely not the last. So where do we go from here? I say we do what Ryan would have wanted us to do and we use it.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Sorry, Mr. Cousineau, what's that mean, use it?
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Use Ryan's death the way that you are feeling right this second - the sorrow, the rage, the terror. You know, I use my past all the time in my work. If I want pure sorrow, I call up Princess Diana's death or the day that my dad fell off the roof when I was a kid - kerplunk. Or the next day when he went right back up on that roof. Hi, Dad.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I just thought since everyone was so bummed out, maybe we could cheer ourselves up by playing characters and putting on some wigs?
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Wigs?
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Well...
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) This is not playtime, Barry.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) No.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) This is not "Cheers." I am not Sam Malone. You want to blow off steam? You do it after class.
HADER: (As Barry Berkman) No, no. I know that. No. I'm actually quitting my job so I can focus on this more.
WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) That is great.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's my guest, Henry Winkler, as the acting teacher, and Bill Hader as his student who is also a hit man, Barry. So I just love how, like, self-important and self-involved (laughter) your character is.
WINKLER: But that's in the class. That's in that theater that I own. Outside, when I'm auditioning, I am just a poor schlub auditioning for the man in the back of the line.
GROSS: So the advice that, you know, Gene, your character, gives to the class of like, yeah, we're all grieving the loss of Ryan, who was a member of this class, but let's use that grief.
GROSS: Is that good advice to use this fresh, shared grief as a kind of...
WINKLER: Well, it is a part of the tool box of the actor. The only thing is that you don't talk about what feeds your emotional under-life. You latch on to something. You keep it. You imagine it. You use it in the play or the movie or the television show. But as soon as you give it a name, as soon as you reveal what that emotional trigger is in your work, you can never use it again. It will dissolve into dust.
GROSS: But that is why some people hate talking to me (laughter).
GROSS: Because I'm asking things about their craft. And if some people really feel like you just said, if you say what it is you're drawing on, you've ruined it. But I know, like, some people feel and some actors feel the same way that some magicians feel, like, you don't tell how it's done...
GROSS: ...Because it ruins the magic.
WINKLER: Well, not only does it ruin the magic - and so that is a magic trick - but I'm talking about for you personally. If I'm using something - my cat died, and I always picture in my mind my cat and how I love that cat - and I don't particularly care for cats but - and I actually say to somebody, well, I draw on my cat to get me to that emotional place. You can never use the cat. As soon as you give words to your emotional well, you can't use it again.
GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Winkler. And he co-stars in the HBO series "Barry," which is now back with Season 2. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "NEVER GONNA BREAK MY FAITH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Winkler. And he now stars as an acting teacher in the HBO comedy series "Barry," which is also a drama series, and it's on Sunday nights. Season 2 is now underway. So how did you get the part in "Barry"?
WINKLER: My wife and I had just left an estate planning meeting. I didn't understand one word...
WINKLER: ...That the two people in the office were talking about.
GROSS: That's not your dyslexia (laughter).
WINKLER: Yes. (Laughter) I don't know, but I really didn't get it. And all I kept saying was, yes, that sounds like a great idea - and, oh, yes, the kids are taken care of. That's good. And then we were driving down Ventura Boulevard. I got a call in the car from my then-agent, Iris (ph), who said, they want you to come in. You're on a short list. It's Bill Hader. I went, Bill Hader, "Saturday Night Live." And it's HBO. HBO?
And then I said, OK. I'm on a short list. Is Dustin Hoffman on that list? Because if he is, I'm not going in because he's getting it. They said, no, he's not on that list. I said, OK. They sent me a script. Our youngest son, Max, who is a director, directed me in the scenes for the audition...
WINKLER: ...And it was very strict.
GROSS: So you see - you said if Dustin Hoffman is on the list, I'm not doing it. Why did you think of Dustin Hoffman...
WINKLER: He's a movie star...
GROSS: Well, there's a lot of an movie stars.
WINKLER: He's an Oscar winner...
GROSS: There's a lot of Oscar winners.
WINKLER: Yeah, I know but, you know...
GROSS: Have you been up against roles...
WINKLER: We're about the same height.
GROSS: OK. Did you ask why they thought of you?
WINKLER: I never did. I was so flummoxed that they wanted to see me - now I have to audition. I auditioned for Bill Hader. I made him laugh in the audition. Then, you know, you wait until someone calls you, and then you - your entire nervous system starts to eat you alive.
WINKLER: And that is the truth. And then you get a call from Bill saying, hey, I just wrote two new scenes last night. Want to come in and play? And I thought, no, I really don't want to do that because maybe I won't be as good as I was the first time that made you call me the second. So - I said, of course I want to come in. Just send me the script.
So he wrote these two beautiful scenes. I now email them to Max, our son. Max directs me on the phone. And I go in the next day. And now Alec Berg is there...
GROSS: The co-writer...
WINKLER: ...His partner. But he is not just a co-writer. This man is like the creme de la creme of comedy in American television. You know, he's Norwegian, and he - his vest is so close. He - I think it's tattooed on. And he doesn't give anything away. And I made him smile. And I thought, OK, so this is it.
I walk out of the room. I'm walking down the stairs. There's a young lady there. Her name is Sarah Goldberg. I said, oh, you trying out for Barry? She said, yes, I am. I said, you seem wonderful, I wish you the best, break a leg. And I left. And I lost my car in the parking lot.
WINKLER: And Sarah got the part. And I got the part. And Sarah is the star of my class.
GROSS: Did you find your car?
WINKLER: Eventually I did.
GROSS: I guess you weren't paying attention.
WINKLER: That's - hello?
WINKLER: That is the watchword of my life.
GROSS: OK. So you got a primetime Emmy...
WINKLER: I did...
GROSS: ...For your performance as the acting teacher in "Barry."
GROSS: Did it take a long time for you to un-Fonz yourself in the eyes of the industry?
WINKLER: Yes, it did - not with me but yes. I literally thought I was going to beat the system. The Fonz was so popular in so many countries. I thought, wow, this is going to be - I'm not going to be typecast. I'm going to go from mountaintop to mountaintop. And then I had a rude awakening that you don't beat the system.
And it took me maybe eight years after the Fonz to really get a good acting role. That's when I started producing. We did "MacGyver" and "Sightings" and "So Weird" and directing a little bit.
GROSS: I want to talk a little bit about "Happy Days." How would you describe the series and your character to people too young to have seen it?
WINKLER: It was a story about a family, about the trials and tribulations of living together. It was set in the '50s, where the music was great. And my character was a tough - a tough guy who rode a motorcycle, wore a leather jacket and had a very soft heart.
GROSS: Your character exuded confidence...
WINKLER: How did I do?
GROSS: Good. Good.
WINKLER: Thank you.
GROSS: I don't think you got to the more goofy parts of the character (laughter).
WINKLER: What would that be? In your mind.
GROSS: OK. That he thought he was like, it, you know, that he was just like the greatest, most handsome...
WINKLER: Oh, people treated him like that.
WINKLER: I don't know that he thought he was because when he - you know, the first thing I said to the producers when they called me on my birthday in 1973 and said, would you like to play this part? I said, hey, when he takes the leather jacket off - when he takes his jacket off, who does he have to be cool for in his apartment? If you let me show the other side, it would be my pleasure to play this character.
GROSS: Did you really, like, tell them who the character needed to be before you accepted the part?
WINKLER: No. Not - you - I would not tell Garry Marshall, rest his soul, who I thought he had to be. But I put the character on, and then they let me sew it on to my being.
GROSS: My guest is Henry Winkler. He co-stars in the HBO dark comedy series "Barry," which is now in its second season.
After a break, we'll talk more about the Fonz. And Henry Winkler will tell us about being the son of German Jews who got out of Germany just in time. And John Powers will talk about how "Game Of Thrones" has managed to become part of the global zeitgeist. The final season starts Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE COASTERS' "YAKETY YAK")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Henry Winkler, who won an Emmy for his performance as a self-important acting teacher in the HBO dark comedy series "Barry," which is now in its second season Sunday nights and was just renewed for a third. When we left off, we were talking about the role that first made him famous as The Fonz, on the '70s sitcom "Happy Days."
So your character, when he was in public and especially when he was around girls, exuded confidence - a comic confidence but confidence.
GROSS: Confidence is something you told us you were greatly lacking in.
WINKLER: That's true.
GROSS: Because of your dyslexia and because your father was always, like, punishing you and insulting you for not doing well in school...
WINKLER: Yes, that is true.
GROSS: Not realizing that it was because you had dyslexia. So was it - what was it like for you to be this comic character who just, like, exuded confidence? He'd snap his finger, and girls would, like, walk over to him. He was, you know...
WINKLER: Yeah, so here's my advice - never actually snap your finger in real life; women will break it off.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's good advice.
WINKLER: Yes, thank you. Yeah. But, you know, here - I got to be everybody that I wasn't. And I understood even then that the confidence I was feeling from the success of the character was cotton, and if it - God forbid - rained, the cotton would just squish into nothing.
GROSS: What were some of the gestures or sounds or whatever, including the finger snap, that you came up with yourself, that weren't in the script?
WINKLER: Well, the gestures were written, aye was written. And I added...
GROSS: It was? But then you had to figure out how to say it. I mean, how was it spelled - A-Y-Y-Y-exclamation-point or something?
WINKLER: Yeah, right. You know...
GROSS: But you had to figure out how to do that?
WINKLER: Well, I also used it to reduce a lot of language to one sound. So if I had attitude about being hungry, that girl was pretty, don't mess with me, let me think about it - I could use that one sound to say all of those different things.
GROSS: Would you...
WINKLER: And my favorite sport at the time was horseback riding, so I added the sound - whoa.
GROSS: Oh, because that's what you say to your horse.
GROSS: Oh, that's interesting. OK.
WINKLER: That's another thing - I would not slow a woman's progress across the room with whoa.
WINKLER: That was really good on TV.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. To exemplify the kinds of things you should not say or do regarding women...
GROSS: ...We're going to play a scene from "Happy Days" in which you're talking about how to deal with women. And you're talking to Richie's parents hear about that, and Richie's there, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HAPPY DAYS")
WINKLER: (As Arthur Fonzarelli) Hey, Mr. C., just take a seat. I'll tell you about women, all right?
WINKLER: (As Arthur Fonzarelli) Boys.
TOM BOSLEY: (As Howard Cunningham) This could be very enlightening.
WINKLER: (As Arthur Fonzarelli) Now, listen; you got to understand women - they are not real people.
WINKLER: (As Arthur Fonzarelli) Excuse me, Mrs. C., huh? Now, listen; they expect the guy to make a pass. They get angry. Believe me, they expect it. But - now, this is a crucial but - let them feel that they got dumped, passed from hand to hand, unwanted, sight unseen, and you've got hurt feelings.
RON HOWARD: (As Richie Cunningham) Maybe he's right, Dad.
WINKLER: (As Arthur Fonzarelli) Maybe I'm right?
BOSLEY: (As Howard Cunningham) He's wrong.
WINKLER: (As Arthur Fonzarelli) I'm wrong?
BOSLEY: (As Howard Cunningham) Now, look; I don't want to hear any more about this. We are going to tell the truth, and I don't want to hear any argument.
WINKLER: (As Arthur Fonzarelli) The Fonz is wrong?
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, some bad advice there.
WINKLER: Let me just say, the worst advice ever given out of a person's mouth, especially - but you know, there were many writers. There were, like, 20 writers in the room, from 21-year-olds to 77-year-olds. And when we were doing this in the '70s, there was a completely different dynamic between people. Not that it was more right; it was just different.
But if - you know, I, now, when a fan comes and wants to take a picture, I ask if I can put my arm around them to take the selfie because we live in a very different time, with a very different expectation and level of respect.
GROSS: Does some of the dialogue from "Happy Days" make you cringe, listening back?
WINKLER: No because it was what it was. And I loved doing that show. And I didn't know better.
GROSS: So you've told the story before about how, early on in "Happy Days," you were only allowed to wear your leather jacket...
GROSS: ...When you were with your motorcycle.
WINKLER: That's right.
GROSS: Because otherwise, it looked too what?
WINKLER: ABC thought I would be associated with crime. So Gary Marshall, in his wisdom, went to...
GROSS: Because of the leather jacket, you'd look...
WINKLER: Yes, absolutely.
GROSS: What, you'd look like...
WINKLER: Like a hood.
GROSS: I mean, like, one of the people who made the leather jacket famous in movies is Marlon Brando.
WINKLER: Yes, that's right.
GROSS: So were they...
WINKLER: And he was a motorcycle, you know, like, thug.
GROSS: What's also hilarious is considering how many leather jackets and vegan leather jackets are out there now, to think that, like, the leather jacket had such power that the network was afraid of you wearing it, that is really a different time.
WINKLER: It's amazing. And not only that, but of all those leather jackets, from the tiniest leather jacket that the person had when they were 3 to the new leather jacket that they are wearing now, I have signed all of them in silver.
GROSS: (Laughter) So I want to ask you about your parents. I don't know if they're still alive or not, so...
WINKLER: They are not.
GROSS: They're not. OK.
GROSS: So your parents were German immigrants. They came...
WINKLER: They were.
GROSS: ...Here in 1939.
WINKLER: Yes, they did.
GROSS: So - and so you're Jewish.
WINKLER: Through Ellis Island. I am.
GROSS: So it's good they came when they did.
WINKLER: That's true, or we would not be sitting here.
GROSS: I think the door closed right behind them. Yeah. So what - how did they know to leave?
WINKLER: My father.
GROSS: I always wonder how people know the time is right and they'd better get out.
WINKLER: My father knew that it was time. He got a six-week visa from Germany to come and do work in New York but was expected to come right back. I have told this story - that he took his mother's jewelry, bought a box of chocolate, melted the chocolate down, put the pieces of jewelry in the chocolate box, melted - poured the chocolate over the jewelry, put the box under his arm, so when he was stopped by the Nazis and they said, are you taking anything of value out of Germany, he said, no, you can open every bag; we've got nothing.
And the jewelry that he encased in chocolate, he sold when he came out of Ellis Island into New York and was able to start a new a new life here, slowly but surely. I have the actual letters from the government each time my father requested to stay a little longer, and they would say yes. And I was born, and thank God, 'cause I love our country.
GROSS: This was the U.S. government giving him permission to stay.
GROSS: And you had an uncle who stayed behind a little longer and couldn't get out, right?
WINKLER: I did - Uncle Helmut. And he was supposed to escape with a submarine that was supposed - you know, they had a meeting place. And they - a lot of friends were going to get on this submarine and get out. And he said, no, no, no. I'm just going to stay one more day. It'll be fine. I'm having a white dinner jacket made at the tailor. And I think I can wait one more day, and I'll be OK. And he was taken to Auschwitz.
And I just did a show called "Better Late Than Never," where I traveled around the world. And I saw the plaque in the street that commemorated my uncle and every other Jew that was taken from Berlin. And it said his - Helmut Winkler, his date of birth, when he lived in the building the plaque was in front of and what year he was taken to Auschwitz.
GROSS: So was it - was your family religious? Were you raised...
WINKLER: My family was religious. They are certainly more religious than I am. I am proud of my religion. My children were all bat and bar mitzvah'd. But I'm not as traditional or keeping the tradition as my parents were. We said the prayer over the bread and the wine and the candles on Friday night. We had Shabbat dinner. My parents went to temple every week. They - my father was president of the temple.
GROSS: Do you think that the Holocaust made your parents feel more strongly about being observant?
WINKLER: I don't have an answer to that question.
WINKLER: I didn't like them so much. I didn't pay attention a lot. I didn't...
GROSS: You didn't like your parents. Is that what you're saying?
WINKLER: That's - yeah, I didn't.
WINKLER: Now - certainly, now I've mellowed. But a lot of my life was fueled by the fury of these two people who were so non-present on who I was on the Earth.
GROSS: Do you think that your parents having gotten out just in time, your uncle having died in Auschwitz, you know, the knowledge of what happened to everybody who - all the Jews who stayed behind in Germany...
WINKLER: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Do you think that that made your father more disappointed in you and in your difficulties reading and everything - because it's like, what do you have to complain about? Why can't you be better? Look what happened in Germany. Like...
WINKLER: You know what? I don't know if that is true. Listen. I figure the trauma of leaving your country, losing your family, the Holocaust of what was happening in the world at that moment certainly affected the way they were. But on the education part, the being lazy, the not living up to my potential, being a shtum hunt, which is dumb dog - I think that was in his DNA. I think that they brought that with them, with or without a war.
GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Winkler, and he now co-stars in the HBO comedy series "Barry" as an acting teacher. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Winkler, who got his start playing the Fonz on "Happy Days," which made him famous around the world. And now he's on TV on HBO in the series "Barry," which was co-created by Bill Hader, who also stars in it. He plays a hit man and acting student, and Henry Winkler plays his acting teacher.
So in addition to your acting, you also have co-authored a series of novels about...
GROSS: ...A boy named Hank who has dyslexia, as do you. And it's in a special typeface, which I thought was really interesting.
WINKLER: Well, the younger...
GROSS: I didn't know there was a typeface for dyslexic people.
WINKLER: You know what? There wasn't.
WINKLER: And a dad in Holland came up with it. And the publisher, Penguin Putnam, chose the typeface. It was the first time it was ever used in America, and I have to say I am so proud because I could have used it. It just makes the eye track so much more easily across the page for the...
GROSS: Yeah. What makes it different?
WINKLER: The ascending line of the T, the descending line of the G, the C is - there's a different distance in the opening of the C. They are more weighted at the bottom of the letter, so they sit more comfortably on the line so that they don't float. There are so many things. He was a - he is a graphic designer, and he's dyslexic. His children are dyslexic. And when you look at the novel itself, when you look at the page, you go, I get it. It's just so much more friendly.
GROSS: There's a little more space between the letters, too, so that it's easier...
GROSS: Yeah. It's easier to...
WINKLER: Yeah. The spacing is different.
GROSS: ...Distinguish the letters.
GROSS: And it slows down - I think that slows down the speed that you have to read at because there's fewer letters and words on the page. So...
WINKLER: Well, let me just say I...
GROSS: ...It's not coming at you. Yeah.
WINKLER: I need to just slow it down because it's so difficult for me even today. I cannot sound words out. The word schedule is written out and taped to my computer because I use it all the time, and if it wasn't there - I cannot sound out the word or visualize spelling words.
GROSS: You know how you said earlier that you used to embarrass yourself at the Monday readings...
WINKLER: Readings, yeah.
GROSS: ...For "Happy Days" because you had such trouble reading a new script.
GROSS: Does a similar thing happen when you're reading "Barry"?
WINKLER: Yes. We're sitting around the table, and sometimes they - people who sit next to me have to point out that I have dropped a line - that I just missed it on the page. And I'm sitting there thinking, oh, my God, I wonder whose line it is? There's a big silence here. It turns out it's me.
GROSS: So is it still embarrassing or can you just say like I have trouble...
GROSS: ...So I have to do it more slowly?
WINKLER: I can say that, and I'm still embarrassed.
WINKLER: You know, and not only that but also, I want to be perfect. And I hate when I miss the timing or I screw another actor's timing up because I have screwed the line up so badly. Or I have to go back again or - I hate it. Sometimes I just hate my brain.
GROSS: Well, it's not healthy to hate your brain.
WINKLER: No? Well, I'm not healthy.
GROSS: So, you know, I can't end the interview without asking you about jumping the shark. Sorry.
GROSS: I'm sure you're tired of talking about this.
WINKLER: I'm not.
GROSS: Oh, you're not?
WINKLER: Not with you.
GROSS: (Laughter) Thank you. So that expression has come to mean when something has kind of ended, when its time is over.
GROSS: So I want you to describe the scene in "Happy Days" where you literally water ski over a shark that's kind of confined in a lake that you're waterskiing on.
WINKLER: OK. So three facts. One - my father, the short German, said to me every day for years - tell Garry Marshall that you water ski. Dad, I don't think I'm going to do that. No, no. Tell him you water ski. It's very important. I finally tell Garry, my father wants you to know I water ski. OK. That's No. 1.
No. 2 - I was a water ski instructor at Blue Mountain camps...
WINKLER: ...And - in East Stroudsburg, Pa. And I loved water skiing. We water-skied on Mahopac Lake just north of New York. And I did all the water skiing except for the jump itself - which they - I don't know how to do that stunt. And they brought somebody in from Sarasota Springs, Fla.
When I hit the beach at the end - when I've jumped the shark - I land on the beach, and I step out of my skis. And I'm smiling. I'm thinking, hey, this is great. Half the smile is Henry going, oh, my God, I can't believe you just did that. And the other half is the Fonz going, all right, here I am. I did it. I'm very cool.
GROSS: What was it about that scene or that episode that came to signify when something's time is up - when it's over?
WINKLER: You know what? I don't know. To them, the Fonz water skiing was just like the last straw. The only thing is it wasn't to the audience because we were No. 1 for years after that. So it didn't much matter to anybody.
GROSS: I should mention in that scene you're wearing your leather jacket over your bathing suit.
WINKLER: Yes, I am - though the lining is ripped out. And I think I had very nice legs at that time.
GROSS: (Laughter) So how does it make you feel that your scene came to define it's over?
WINKLER: OK, here's the truth. Are you ready?
GROSS: Yes, I'm ready.
WINKLER: I don't care.
WINKLER: I think it is wonderful. And we're still talking about it in 2019. I think this is all great. This is America.
GROSS: Henry Winkler, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
WINKLER: Thank you.
GROSS: Henry Winkler co-stars in the HBO series "Barry." The second season is being shown on HBO Sunday nights. It was just renewed for a third season. The final season of "Game Of Thrones" starts Sunday on HBO. After a break, John Powers will talk about why it caught on around the world. This is FRESH AIR.
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