Catching Up with The Fonz: Winkler talks new reality show

June 13, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He turned The Fonz into must-see TV on Tuesday nights.

Now, Henry Winkler returns to Tuesday night television for “Better Late Than Never,” a title that assures you it’s OK to hop on board the show now — even if you missed the first two episodes.

The star-studded NBC reality show airs Episode 3 at 10 p.m., following the globe-trotting antics of the “Happy Days” alum, along with two-time heavyweight champ George Foreman, four-time Super Bowl champ Terry Bradshaw, TV icon William Shatner and “Last Comic Standing” finalist Jeff Dye.

“Five guys, six cities, five cameras, 35 days and we made it into a television show,” Winkler told WTOP in his best dramatic elevator pitch. “We went through a culture we didn’t understand. I had pork vagina last week in a hole-in-the-wall in Tokyo, a yakitori restaurant. It stayed in my mouth for about a second-and-a-half and then I spit it out across the room. I think it’s still hanging on the wall.”

Adapted from the hit South Korean TV series “Grandpas Over Flowers,” this week’s episode fittingly brings the American gang to South Korea, where Winkler pushed himself out of his comfort zone.

“I do something that I have never done before,” he said. “At 7:30 in the morning, I told the producers in Korea, ‘I will not do this,’ then at 10 at night, I did it. So I felt like I accomplished something.”

To watch the show is to relish the ribbing between these “seasoned veterans” of pop culture.

“Terry Bradshaw has the heart of Oklahoma [but] if he dares to try to hug you, you’ll want to put a surrogate in there, because he will crush every bone,” Winkler said. “Bill Shatner has read every book on the planet and wants you to know what’s on every page. George Foreman has made napping into an art form. Just as his tush reaches the chair, he’s in R.E.M. And then there’s me, having the greatest time of my life. I was scared when we started; [now] I am grateful I was smart enough to say yes.”

So far, Winkler says he has gotten lots of good anecdotal feedback.

“I’ve traveled everywhere in the country [and] people have said, ‘I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time. I nearly peed myself,'” Winkler said. “I now carry extra underwear for my fans.”

Winkler no doubt has legions of fans after making TV history as Arthur Fonzarelli on “Happy Days” (1974-1984). The embodiment of cool, crowds erupted each time The Fonz strutted in with greased hair, sideburns and leather jacket, fixing jukeboxes with a pound of his fist and delivering his signature catchphrase, “Eyyy!” The iconic role won him two Golden Globes and three Emmy nominations.

For all this, Winkler feels forever in debt to the show’s late creator Garry Marshall, who died in July.

“Garry Marshall was my mentor, Garry Marshall was my friend, Garry Marshall was my teacher, just one-of-a-kind,” Winkler said. “God-given talent. His ability to know funny, to create funny, but I think that one of the most important things … is the ability to listen. Not to just have an opinion, but to open your opinion to somebody else’s, so that you can combine them and make it even better.”

Somewhere along the way, a wild opinion from the “Happy Days” writers insisted that Fonzie jump his water-skis over a shark, creating a pop-culture phrase for a show overstaying its welcome with “jumping the shark.” Even so, Winkler doesn’t mind reporters asking about the now-iconic jump.

“Jumping the shark is a part of life. I’m the only actor who’s jumped it twice. On ‘Arrested Development,’ I jumped over the shark,” Winkler said of his appearance in the quirky TV comedy narrated and executive produced by his former “Happy Days” co-star Ron Howard.

Winkler says he has loved watching Howard blossom into a director, first mulling the idea on the set of “Happy Days,” then winning acclaim by directing “Apollo 13” (1995) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).

“Ron knew what he wanted to do since he was 16: be a director,” Winkler said. “He asked me on the set of ‘Happy Days,’ he said, ‘So whadya think?’ I said, ‘Ron, you’re so personally powerful. Honest to God, you look like a loaf of Wonderbread, but inside you are powerful. There is nothing you can’t do.'”

So, Howard took the leap and made his directorial debut with “Grand Theft Auto” (1977), followed by the Michael Keaton comedy “Night Shift” (1982), which earned Winkler a Golden Globe nomination.

“He was worried because he was so young,” Winkler said. “The crew had been doing it for so long, would they listen to him? … They couldn’t wait for him to tell them what to do because he’s so good.”

When casting the film, Howard let his old pal Winkler choose which role he wanted to play, weighing how the career move might contrast against the Cunninghams so popular on “Happy Days.”

“He said you can do either role — I’d just like you to be in the movie,” Winkler said. “So I figured, all right, I’ve played The Fonz now for 10 years, I’m gonna play Richie. And that’s how I picked Chuck.”

From “Happy Days” to “Night Shift,” Winkler has shown his range, making a new generation laugh in “The Waterboy” (1998) as his Coach Klein convinced Kathy Bates’ strict mother to allow her baby boy Bobby Boucher (Adam Sandler) to play “foosball” despite deeming it “the devil.”

So how would Winkler coach Sandler to blitz his “Better Late Than Now” co-star Terry Bradshaw?

“I would go for his knees, because they’re very bad,” Winkler said. “He has a knee replaced. His body is breaking down. He crawled through Asia. You don’t wanna play this for him, or I’m dead.”

As for Winkler, he stays active at 70, filming an upcoming HBO show with Bill Hader in January.

“I love my career,” Winkler said nostalgically. “I am grateful that I had a dream when I was seven and at 70, I’m still doing it and I’m still here with you. … I am a lucky, lucky human being.”

Listen to the full conversation with Henry Winkler below:

June 13, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Henry Winkler (On-Air) (Jason Fraley)
June 13, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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