There was a time, between 1974 and 1984, when Happy Days’ Arthur ”The Fonz” Fonzarelli, as embodied by Henry Winkler (No. 32 on EW and TV Land's list of the top TV icons of all time), simply defined cool — and it wasn’t just the leather jacket and the perfect hair. This 1950s greaser carried himself with the kind of unironic, macho self-confidence that was in short supply during the disillusioned 1970s. The moment Winkler — a Yale School of Drama grad — flipped his collar, cocked his thumbs, and smirked his trademark ”Aaaay,” all was right with the world.
As for Fonzie jumping that shark, an event that’s become shorthand for when a show’s past its prime? We like to consider it a charitable donation to the pop-culture lexicon. When we spoke with Winkler about the Fonz, however, the actor (now 62 years old) sees the iconic moment a bit differently.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to be considered a TV icon?
HENRY WINKLER: I’m very proud that I am in that category. It’s hard for me as an individual to actually look in the mirror and see an icon. I see a husband, a father.
Was there a moment in the early years of Happy Days when you realized just how popular Fonzie was?
We were in Dallas [and] 25,000 people showed up at a mall to say hello to us. One of the guys [on the show] asked me, ”Do we deserve this?” I said, ”That’s not really the question. They’re here. Just say, ‘Thank you.” People have an image of who you are. You have to remember you’re not who they think you are. As much as I wanted to be able to do it, I couldn’t part the Red Sea. And I tried to figure out how to, but it just never happened.
Initially, it wasn’t supposed to be a big role, right?
Well, he was on the fringe. I had six lines. I worked one day a week. So the other four days, I sat in my apartment, because I didn’t think you could go out and play on a work week. And [the character] grew steadily, and then all of a sudden there were episodes that were being written about this character.
When I think about the iconic parts about the Fonz, it was his leather jacket, and his catchphrase, ”Aaaay!” How did they come together?
The leather jacket came when [exec producer] Garry Marshall made a deal with ABC. [The network] said, ”Yes, all right, you can use him in leather only when he’s with his motorcycle.” Garry went back and said to the writers, ”Never write a scene without his motorcycle again.” So I always stood next to my motorcycle — inside, outside, in my apartment, in Arnold’s. Didn’t matter where, I was always with my motorcycle. And that’s how I got out of the golf jacket and into leather.
So ABC wasn’t interested in you being in leather?
No, they thought I’d be associated with crime. It went from there to a few years later [ABC] offering my own [spin-off] show, which I thought was the kiss of death. That was flattering, but he lived and breathed in that environment with those fabulous people. You take him out of that, and what do you got? You got nothing. And then the ”Aaaay!” — that came from reducing language to sound. In New York, there is ”f—ing aaaay.” So I spoke the word: ”Aaaay.”
NEXT PAGE: ”I am, truly, the only actor on the Earth who has jumped the shark twice.”